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Wilson is ready to prove he's more than just a goon as he returns to the lineup

Wilson is ready to prove he's more than just a goon as he returns to the lineup

This is a big season for Tom Wilson. As a former first-round pick whose career high is currently seven goals, the team is ready to see more production out of him. A four-game suspension is not the way he wanted things to start.

”It obviously wasn't the best start to the year for me,” Wilson said. “A little bit of adversity out of the gates.”

Everyone knows about Wilson’s physical presence on the ice. Chances are if you have not been following him throughout his career, you may think of Wilson as nothing more than a “goon,” a physical player who brings nothing more to the table than big hits and the occasional fight.

What you may not know, however, is that Wilson was a first-round draft pick in 2012 and it wasn’t because of his checking ability. In his last season in the OHL, Wilson tallied 58 points in 48 games.

RELATED: DJOOS MADE A GOOD IMPRESSION ON HIS TEAMMATES IN HIS FIRST GAME

If anyone doubts the impact Wilson can have on the team, they need only go back to the Caps’ playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Down 2-1 in the series, Washington entered a must-win situation in Game 4 on the road. Head coach Barry Trotz moved Wilson from the fourth line to the third and he responded with two goals and a goal-saving diving stop on the goal line as a puck trickled past Braden Holtby.

That’s the player the team was hoping to see more of this season.

“Enough people call you a goon, you want to get out there and prove to them that you can score some goals,” Wilson said to reporters after practice on Thursday. “That's always been a part of my game. There's always been that, can he play? Is he just physical? Can he play? I want to continue to develop my game. I want to continue to be rounded into that all-around player and now more than ever in hockey, you've got to be able to play, you've got to be able to produce offensively.”

This was the goal coming into the season, but a rough preseason made it hard for even the most optimistic Wilson supporter to defend his play.

Coming into the preseason, Wilson had never been suspended by the league. Now he has two suspensions to his name, the second of which cost him the first four games of the regular season.

The two suspensions were particularly frustrating to Wilson as someone who studies his own hits after games to make sure they remain clean.

“For the majority of four seasons you watch pretty much every one of my hits and frame by frame, tenth by tenth seconds and you can't find one thing that's wrong with it,” Wilson said. “They're textbook body checks broken down even slow.”

As Wilson now prepares to return to the Capitals’ lineup, he says he has gotten the message the league has tried to send him.

“It's my job to adapt,” Wilson said. “It's my job to kind of watch that and make sure that I'm finishing checks cleanly. The hitting is part of the game and it's part of my game and I'm going to continue to do it, I've just got to be a little bit smarter and make sure I'm out there with the team not kind of sitting in the stands watching.”

That is very different from the tone Wilson took after his first suspension when he almost defiantly declared he would not change his game.

For his part, Trotz says he expects to see the same Wilson, just smarter.

“He's going to be a big body, hard to handle, he's going to be physical, he's going to be a good penalty killer, detailed, all those things. I don't expect him to change other than just some decisions on some of the guys coming in. He puts the little bit of you know who when they see him coming. He's a big man. He's a huge man who can really get around the ice and he hits like a truck.”

MORE CAPITALS: HOLTBY WAS NOT HAPPY ABOUT CROSBY'S HIT

Trotz said he anticipated Wilson to move into the third line at right wing to play alongside Lars Eller and Brett Connolly. Alex Chiasson practiced on the fourth line Thursday with Jay Beagle and Devante Smith-Pelly.

Wilson is going to get the bigger role he expected to spark the third line and he is hoping he can prove that he is more than just a physical player.

“I've still got 78 games ahead of us here,” Wilson said, “And I've got to make the most of those and make sure I kind of almost make up for lost time here and get after it.”

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Key Caps questions: Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

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USA TODAY Sports

Key Caps questions: Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: At 33 years old, can Alex Ovechkin challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top-goalscorer?

Tarik: By scoring 49 goals last season, Alex Ovechkin didn’t just defy Father Time, he also did something historic: at 32 years old, the Caps’ captain became the oldest player to lead the league in scoring since Phil Esposito did it at 33 in 1974-75.

Which brings me to today’s question.

I see more reasons Ovechkin will challenge for a record eighth goal-scoring title rather than reasons he won't. (By the way, he’s currently tied with Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, who led the league in goals seven times).

Consider:

  • No. 1—Ovechkin, who turns 33 on Sept. 17, has shown no signs of breaking down physically, despite logging some hard miles over the course of 13 seasons. And if you’re going to lead the league in goals, you’ve got to play, and play a lot. Last season, in fact, he averaged nearly two minutes MORE per game (20:09) than he did the previous year.
  • No. 2—Something tells me that now Ovi has done a keg stand from the Stanley Cup, he’s more determined than ever to take another swig next summer. I don’t have any stats to back up this bullet point. It’s just a hunch from someone who’s covered a lot of his career.
  • No. 3—From an Xs and Os standpoint, not much is expected to change in 2018-19. His line will be centered by Evgeny Kuznetsov. If things go stale, new head coach Todd Reirden will have the ace-up-the-sleeve option of reuniting Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom. Meanwhile, the power play—where No. 8 does so much of his damage—will have the same structure and pieces.

To me, the only thing that could prevent Ovechkin from challenging Patrik Laine, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid and Co. for another goal scoring title will be complacency. And I just don’t foresee that being an issue.

Ovechkin has an opportunity to help the Caps make up for some lost time. But there’s no way they’ll be contenders if their best player isn’t at, or near, the top of the league in goals once again.

And he knows it.

JJ: Ovechkin has shown people throughout his incredible career that you should never doubt him. He only scored 32 and 38 goals in 2010-2012. Think he's not going to reach 50 again? Well, he did it three times. Think Ovechkin's 33-goal season in 2016-17 shows he's on the decline? Well, he just led the NHL in goals for the seventh time in his career. Think Ovechkin can't lead his team to a Stanley Cup? Well, we all know how that turned out.

Ovechkin was challenged at the end of the 2016-17 season by Brian MacLellan who noted Ovechkin would have to change the way he trained in order to keep up with the quicker NHL. He took those words to heart and showed up for training camp a little earlier and little lighter than usual.

After his day with the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin sent it off with the words, "See you next year." He knows what it takes to be successful and he will be extra motivated to once again come into camp ready for a big season.

Having said all of that, Father Time will always be undefeated.

As Tarik noted above, the 32-year-old Ovechkin was the oldest player to lead the league in scoring since Esposito in 1974-75. It's hard to do. Plus, there are a lot of young players like Laine and McDavid who are only getting better. While they're hitting thier prime, Ovechkin is fighting a losing battle with time.

That does not mean I expect Ovechkin's production to fall off a cliff. I still think he can surpass 40 goals, but the league's offense is trending up with the league average for goals per game per team climbing all the way up to 2.97 last season. That's the highest it has been since 2005-06. I am of the opinion that the offense is going to continue trending upward and it is going to take more than 49 goals to win the Rocket Richard this year.

Can Ovechkin score 40+ goals this season? Absolutely. Can he score more than that? I'm not so sure.

The Great 8 will remain a great goal-scorer and the Capitals' best offensive weapon, but I do not foresee him earning his eighth Rocket Richard Trophy or even finishing in the top three among the league's goal scorers.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

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Key Caps questions: Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

usatsi_10890819.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

Key Caps questions: Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

Tarik: The term ‘Stanley Cup Hangover’ exists because, well, it’s a real thing. And the Caps, like all teams that battle into early June, are vulnerable to suffering from it next season.

Why? Think about it. No. 1, the core group just completed the longest season—106 games—of their lives (and, somewhere, the party is still going). No. 2, the top guys aren't exactly a bunch of spring chickens. No. 3, human nature.

A little more on that last one. Alex Ovechkin and Co. have spent the entirety of their professional hockey careers chasing Lord Stanley’s Cup. And now they have it. At long last. Hoisting the Cup was as much a moment to cherish as it was a gigantic relief for a team that had been labeled perennial underachievers. Shifting gears from that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment back to hunger and determination is difficult.

Something else that worries me a bit? They don’t have experience dealing with a truncated offseason. Rest and recovery matter. And they aren’t going to get much of either this summer.

All that said, they don’t have to stumble through the 2018-19 season. If you're looking at things from the optimist's point of view, the Cup run did something for Ovechkin and his teammates that none of the previous failures could: It showed them EXACTLY what it takes to play deep into the spring.

Eleven out of 12 forwards from the championship squad are expected back. Five of six defensemen and the goalie are returning, as well. Sure, they’ve got a new head coach, but he’s been here for four years already, giving him a huge advantage over a bench boss who’s starting from scratch. So there’s continuity and chemistry already built in.

I look at it like this: The core guys who’ve been around a while—Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Holtby, etc.—have a rare opportunity before them. After coming up short for so many years, they’ve been gifted an extraordinary chance to make up for lost time over the next 12-24 months. In fact, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Oshie, Eller, Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov, Kempny and Holtby have two more years together, as a core, before the next round of tough decisions will need to be made.

But it’s going to be up to them. Are they going to be satisfied with one Cup? Or will they get greedy? I’m betting on the latter.

Regan: The Capitals could enter next season hungry, motivated, in the right mindset, completely prepared in every way to avoid a Cup hangover and it may still happen. Why? Because the Capitals (and Vegas for that matter) will enter next season with less time to rest, recover and prepare after a grueling playoff run than any other team in the NHL.

First things first, no, I do not think the Caps will struggle because they are are partying too hard this summer and won't be ready for the start of the season.

It took a long time Washington to finally reach the top of the mountain. It won't be lost on Alex Ovechkin, or any of the veterans, that the year he came into training camp early and in really good shape, that was the year he was able to lead his team to the promised land. Considering all the struggles, all the early playoff exits, all the years it took to finally win, I expect the veterans will look at how they prepared last season and take that lesson to heart going into camp. Those players will enter the fall in as good a shape as the time they have this offseason will allow them to be.

But this team is not just composed of veterans of the Ovechkin era who suffered through all of those postseason struggles.

What about the youngsters? Will Jakub Vrana have the same motivation as Ovechkin or a Nicklas Backstrom to show up to camp ready next season? What about Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey? If any of the team's young players aren't exactly in "game shape" by the fall, they won't be the first and they certainly won't be the last to struggle with early career playoff success.

There's also a new head coach to consider. In a lot of ways, I think coming into the season with a new coach in Todd Reirden will help. I don't expect too much adjustment under a coach the team knows very well, but I do expect more motivation at the start of the regular season than you usually see from a team coming off a championship.

There are a lot of reasons why the Caps could actually avoid a Cup hangover, but the fact is that time puts them at a disadvantage. Even if they overcome all the other factors, there's nothing they can do to suddenly give themselves more time to recover and to train. For that reason alone, I do expect a few early-season struggles from the defending champs.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?