Two games ago the Capitals’ 22-year old forward Tom Wilson led the team’s forward group in five-on-five ice time against the Winnipeg Jets with 15 minutes. This has not been the norm, as Wilson currently sits ninth overall among Caps forwards in five-on-five ice time, but it does highlight an interesting opportunity that the team has.
Wilson is a polarizing player, almost certainly the most polarizing to suit up for the Caps on a regular basis. The first round pick probably already sits in the “bust” column for many fans, and his unrelenting physicality draws the ire of 29 other fanbases.
But with the commitment of a new two-year deal, Wilson is here to stay. And despite a continued lack of results, there is a case to be made that now is exactly the time during that two-year window when Wilson should be seeing serious playing time — at least more than the 10.5 minutes per game he has seen to date.
Wilson’s production is lacking, but the process is not far off. Since the beginning of last season, Wilson has produced individual shot attempts at the 6th highest rate among Caps forwards and the fifth highest among forwards still on the team. He was just a tick behind TJ Oshie during that time period, at 12.1 shot attempts per 60 minutes to Oshie’s 12.2.
But during that span Wilson was 11th out of 13 in goal rate, and Oshie was third. Part of that difference was Wilson getting so many shots blocked, but even more was his mediocre 7.3 shooting percentage compared to Oshie’s much higher 11.5. This doesn’t necessarily mean Wilson is unlucky, but rather that he most likely needs to hone his shooting skills and finishing ability.
Here are the top-five individual shot attempt forwards from 2015 to present.
|Player||SA per 60||Unblocked SA per 60||Sh Percent|
It’s debatable how much you can teach shooting percentage or scoring instincts, but this demonstrates that some of the process is there. Wilson is able to generate shots at a rate consistent with a top-six winger, and he also produces primary assists at the third highest rate among forwards.
And while he is currently only a 50.8 percent possession player (worst among Caps forwards), opponent shot attempts are fifth lowest when Wilson is on the ice. This is all with the fourth lowest quality of teammate and fourth most defensive zone starts since the beginning of last season.
So, Wilson has produced individual shot attempts while skating on the lower lines with tough deployments. And he has done so while being defensively sound. His play just hasn’t translated into actual offensive production, either at the team level or as an individual.
The Caps need depth scoring for the postseason, and being a lock for the postseason they have the luxury to develop it. The Caps are on the heels of one of their most dominant seasons in franchise history, and they have managed to improve that roster further still. Despite a few blown leads the Caps are analytically sound and find themselves in the midst of a five-game win streak. Spoiler alert: barring injuries (knock on wood) the Capitals are not missing the playoffs.
But in the playoffs the Capitals have had the biggest scoring dropoff from the regular season of any team in the last eight years. This was particularly acute this last year when they desperately needed depth scoring to complement solid production from some of the Big Guns.
Finding themselves a near lock for the playoffs once again, the Caps are afforded the luxury to experiment. On the surface Wilson’s results don’t merit a promotion, but with Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov finding success, and newcomer Lars Eller’s play as steady as advertised, he is the only skater in the top nine who needs significant developing.
And this is exactly the time to work on that. This is a low-stakes period where the Caps can mix up the lineup and grow Wilson’s game, without fretting over every single standings point. More minutes for Wilson also has the added benefit of dialing down the ice time of some of the veterans, who should save their bodies for a do-or-die postseason run.
The team seems to have a plan for Tom Wilson, and he seems to be aware of that plan. The Caps have committed two years and $4 million to Tom Wilson, which while not disastrously pricey, is not cheap for a team that needs to pinch every penny. The Caps have openly committed to turning him into a Joel Ward-esque net-front presence. For his part, Wilson has admitted that he has a lot of work to do and that he has a genuine desire to be that kind of player. Regarding being more of a net-front presence here is what Wilson had to say:
Timing is a huge part of it… a guy like Wardo he wasn’t the fastest skater in the world, but he’d always find the right spot at the right time. I know I’ve been compared to that by the coaches, they want to make me into part of that player.
I’m often kind of just buzzing around and if you’re skating as fast as you can all the time you miss some opportunities for when the puck is gonna come, so just being a more mature player, and developing your game, and being smarter about it.
This is a realistic plan for Wilson, far more realistic than fantasies of him as Milan Lucic 2.0. It would make use of a player whose shooting percentage and ability to get shots on net is lower, but who has size, speed, and hockey sense. It requires Wilson to hone his understanding of the Caps system, as well as work on the subtleties of timing on an offense that so far has generated 31 percent of its goals from point shots.
These skills can be taught more readily than becoming a sniper. They could be invaluable as a scoring technique that fits in a low-to-high system and that doesn’t require relying on pretty plays, which some have argued has been the Caps’ downfall in the playoffs.
All said and done, Tom Wilson’s lack of production is one of the only weaknesses in the Caps’ top-nine forward corps. Given the financial commitment the team has made to the young forward, there is no better time than now to give him a chance to grow into a valuable player.
Doing so might not work, but at least then the Capitals will have a better sense of Wilson’s ceiling, and they’ll know what he is capable of with quality linemates and big responsibilities. Right now, exploring every facet of the lineup and every potential advantage is more important than building a huge standings lead that we know means next to nothing in the long run.
Stats courtesy of Corsica.hockey and Naturalstattrick.com
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.