Capitals Coach Barry Trotz has found just the thing — or rather, just the someone — for slumping forwards. His name is Tom Wilson, and he has become Washington’s lineup elixir, getting moved from one line to another to energize teammates in need. His current project is the Capitals’ second trio with center Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov has 39 points in 42 games, meaning his scoring is far from concerning, but he has fallen into a rut of late with just one assist in the past six games. Beside him, rookie left wing Jakub Vrana has gone six games without a point and has a minus-3 rating in that span. So, as Trotz has done several times now, he moved Wilson beside them, hoping his active and physical style will revive the struggling duo.
That role has shaped a breakout season for Wilson, who is a point short of matching his 82-game total of last year; he has six goals and 12 assists in 38 games. He’s on pace to reach a double-digit goal total for the first time, an expectation Trotz set before the season. But his greatest value has been his ability to play anywhere in the lineup, from the top trio with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin to the fourth line with center Jay Beagle, seemingly improving his linemates every time.
“He’s been able to fix a couple of lines for us just by what he brings to a line,” Trotz said this month. “He brings that energy, that physicality, that relentlessness, and he can make plays.”
In an offseason defined by salary-cap constraints, Washington signed Kuznetsov to an eight-year, $62.4 million extension, but the team parted ways with his two most frequent linemates from the past two seasons: wingers Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams. Kuznetsov and Vrana seemed to catch fire in December, but now that both are enduring dry spells, Trotz had winger Andre Burakovsky rotating with Vrana on the second line in Monday’s practice, and it’s possible Burakovsky will replace Vrana as the left wing there Tuesday night against Vancouver.
Burakovsky has had his own struggles, missing 20 games with a broken left thumb and struggling afterward to manage just three goals and five assists in 20 games. He was a healthy scratch for two games before returning to action in Sunday’s overtime win over St. Louis. Burakovsky could be the seventh winger to play beside Kuznetsov this season; Trotz still seems to be searching for a sustainable second-line combination.
“It’s probably no different than earlier with Backy,” Trotz said.
Enter Wilson, who Trotz felt brought energy to Backstrom and Ovechkin when the coach reunited the superstars in November. When the team fell into a scoring drought at the end of December, Trotz shifted Wilson away from those two and onto the third line with center Lars Eller and Brett Connolly. As soon as the change was made, in-game against the Boston Bruins, Wilson helped the trio score two goals.
“It’s a compliment to me, but it’s also a compliment to the other guys you’re playing with,” Wilson said. “It’s not one guy on a line; it’s three, and there’s a lot of combinations on this team that are pretty effective. Whenever I get moved to a line, I just try and move my feet. I try to work as hard as I can and create space for those guys. If Barry wants to move me around, I’m never going to complain. I just go out there and try to do whatever I can to help that line achieve more.”
Wilson’s season started with a four-game suspension for boarding committed in the preseason, a wakeup call that forced the 23-year-old to re-examine the bruising nature of his play — which is exactly what makes him an energizing force and effective in the top-six forward corps, since he can wear down opponents and create turnovers. He has seemingly found a balance, drawing 19 penalties at even strength while being called for just eight. Wilson is a 2012 first-round pick who has never scored more than 23 points, and the Capitals hoped he would increase his production this season, and show he’s able to consistently play higher in the lineup. He’s done just that.
“I’m a big guy, and I can use my body in different ways,” Wilson said. “I can use it to protect the puck. I can use it to separate a guy from the puck. So there’s going to be those instances where you don’t need to make the big hit. There’s going to be times where the game’s in a bit of a lull, we need some energy, and you need to finish a check. There’s something to be said about finishing a hard check on the forecheck that makes the [defenseman] feel overwhelmed. If you go and bump a [defenseman] versus finishing your body check, he’s going to feel the latter a lot more. Maybe he’ll be more conscious about going back for the puck next time. … Sometimes, if I make that big hit, it takes me out of the play a little bit– whereas, if I don’t, I can keep the puck and keep control and then find a guy.”
When Wilson played beside Ovechkin and Backstrom, the Capitals took 59 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when they were on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. Without him, Ovechkin and Backstrom are still helping the Capitals take the majority of the shot attempts, an indication of favorable possession, but it’s at a less effective rate: 52 percent. He had the same positive impact on Eller and Connolly.
Now Trotz wants to see what Wilson can do beside Kuznetsov.
“I’m just trying to get them going a little bit offensively,” Trotz said. “I think they’ve been a little bit frustrated, so Tom is going to do what he does.”
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