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Capitals mailbag: When will Tom Wilson’s suspension appeal be resolved?

Expect a decision next week on Tom Wilson's suspension appeal to a neutral arbitrator. He was suspended 20 games on Oct. 3 for an illegal check to the head. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

Through 15 games, the Capitals are 7-5-3, and while they’ve been playing better of late, Coach Todd Reirden said he would describe the start to the season as “inconsistent.” In this edition of the mailbag, readers ask when there will be a resolution to forward Tom Wilson’s appeal of his 20-game suspension for an illegal check to the head and where he’ll plug into the lineup when he is eligible again. We also examine the team’s play as it approaches the end of the first quarter of the season, when we might see a Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie line again and defenseman Dmitry Orlov’s start to the season.

Wilson was suspended 20 games by the NHL Department of Player Safety on Oct. 3, so his appeal has now dragged on for nearly six weeks, understandably frustrating Capitals fans. After NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman upheld the suspension on Oct. 25, Wilson had a second appeal hearing with neutral arbitrator Shyam Das on Oct. 31, so a decision is expected sometime this week. It took Das 15 days to reduce the suspension to Nashville forward Austin Watson, so it’s not taking unusually long. Perhaps unfairly to players, the process is designed to take a long time; when Dennis Wideman got his suspension for abuse of an official reduced from 20 games to 10, he had already sat out for 18 games. Wilson will miss his 16th game on Monday, and the 21st game of the season will be on Nov. 21 against Chicago.

I expect him to play as soon as he’s able, and considering the Capitals have struggled to fill his first-line right wing role in his absence, I would think he’ll plug right into the top six. He’s more than behind in game action, but unlike players who miss time with an injury, Wilson has been able to skate and train during these six weeks. It might take him a couple games to be as sharp as some of his teammates, but he hasn’t missed this much playing time in four years. He’ll be shot out of a cannon for that first game back, and depending on the lineup configurations at the time, I could see him immediately returning to his place opposite Ovechkin.

Washington has tried five different wingers with Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and that top line has either been too defensively vulnerable, or it’s struggled to produce at even strength. It’s possible Ovechkin and Kuznetsov will be split by the time Wilson’s suspension is over, but he’s also had success complementing Ovechkin and Backstrom.

The Capitals were 8-6-1 through their first 15 games last season, so they’re off to a very similar start, and more significantly, they’ve been playing better during this homestand. Washington’s team defense and goaltending was its biggest concern during the first month, and both facets have shown some improvement. The Capitals have allowed just one five-on-five goal in their past three games, and that Leon Draisaitl tip came just after a power play expired. Goaltender Braden Holtby has had two of his best performances this week, allowing just one goal and making 41 saves against Pittsburgh, and though the Capitals lost against the Blue Jackets on Friday, he made 34 saves in the 2-1 loss.

Washington still has patches where it gets pinned in its own end, or has some careless turnovers, but that’s typical for every team 15 games into the season. The Capitals' penalty kill and team defense still need work, but last season showed that building a champion is a long process and some early bumps can be a good thing.

Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie was arguably the league’s best line two seasons ago, but we never saw that combination last year, and Ovechkin has played the first 15 games of this season beside Kuznetsov. Reirden likes using that line on the last shift of a period, or he’ll toss Oshie out with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Both combinations have provided some late-in-period goals, and I think we’ll see one of the two this week, possibly against the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday.

The reason former coach Barry Trotz stayed away from putting Ovechkin with Backstrom and Oshie is that it makes for a slow line with all three players in their 30s. Kuznetsov is among the fastest players on the team, and Backstrom and Oshie tend to have a young, speedy wing on their left, like Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana or Andre Burakovsky. But maybe the collective smarts, experience and skill will make up for speed if Reirden does decide to go back to Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie soon. At the very least, it seems like we’re nearing that point where Ovechkin and Backstrom, a partnership for more than a decade, end up together.

Orlov will be the first to admit that this hasn’t been the best start to the season for him. Along with some defensive inconsistency, he has just two assists through 15 games.

“I’m not happy with how I’m playing, but the last few games, I feel better and kind of find how I can play," Orlov said. “I’m getting my confidence back, so I just stick with it, with my game, and try to just watch some shifts, you know? What I did wrong, what I did right and analyze my game, so I think that’s helped me with how I’ve played the last few games. I think we’re going to be fine.”

Orlov was arguably the Capitals' best defenseman last season, and he’s gotten better with each year. In Washington, he’s more than proven himself by now, so I think the Capitals just see this as a tough start rather than some kind of regression. They trust him to get it together, and with the top two pairs recently shuffled, he’ll now be skating beside John Carlson while Matt Niskanen plays with Michal Kempny.

To submit questions for next time, send a tweet to @ikhurshudyan with #izzymailbag or email

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