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Tom Wilson ready for a bigger role with Capitals

Tom Wilson ready for a bigger role with Capitals

Tom Wilson heard what Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said after the season -- about how the Caps would like to turn him into the team’s next Joel Ward, an immovable object in front of opponents’ nets.

On Friday, after signing a two-year, $4 million contract to remain with the Capitals, Wilson said he welcomes the challenge.

“Wardo is an exceptional guy on and off the ice,” Wilson said. “Just being compared to him is pretty cool. He was like an older brother to me, almost like a father figure to me in my first couple years."

“He’s a great guy and he’s really good at what he does. If I’m going to help the team out I have to continue to be really good at what I do and I can grow into that player – be good on the walls, make good plays on the breakouts, make smart plays in the offensive end, use my body. He’s so good at protecting the puck. He’s a guy I tried to watch as much as I could while he was in D.C. and I watched the playoffs to see how he was effective."

“If I could kind of mold into that type of player that would be awesome. I think our team needs that kind of guy. We need a Steady Eddie guy that’s going to produce and help the team out on any given night. Wardo was that for us and he was that for the Sharks this year.”

Ward, a 6-1, 226-pound right wing who signed with San Jose last summer, put up 21 goals and 22 assists in 79 games with the Sharks, and another seven goals and six assists in 24 playoff games.

Wilson, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound right wing, is 13 years younger than Ward. In 82 games with the Capitals he put up a career-high seven goals and 16 assists, but was limited to just one assist in 12 playoff games.

“We're optimistic with him,” MacLellan said of Wilson’s offensive upside. “He had, what, 30 points this year? (23, actually). Seven goals. Good improvement over last year. We expect the improvement to continue. He's still a young guy. He's got good size, is a good character guy, he provides a physical element. We're anticipating his offensive game to continue to grow.”

Last season, Wilson saw his average ice time increase from 10:56 in 2014-15 (when he netted four goals and 13 assists) to 12:54. Some of that extra ice time came on the penalty kill, where he averaged 1:35 a night. But Wilson saw just six seconds a game on the power play, a role that could expand with the departure of Jason Chimera, who averaged 1:26 of power-play time last season.

“He needs to show that he can handle it,” MacLellan said. “The coaches, they express what they're looking from him to be put in more of those situations and if he can come in and do well, he'll get more responsibility on the offensive side.”

To that end, Wilson said he is spending more time this summer working on his puck-handling skills and offensive positioning without losing sight of the energy and physicality he can provide. Last season Wilson led the Caps and finished 10th in the NHL with 253 hits.

“I think anyone who’s watched me play or watched the Caps know I’m kind of a heart-and-soul guy,” Wilson said. “I just try and go out there and do whatever I can to help the team win.

“I know the first day you guys talked to me (in 2012) I said I would play whatever role the coaches gave me and do something every night to prove I should stay in the lineup. Every year I’ve grown a little bit and got more and more responsibility. I don’t expect that to change.

"The responsibility and growth of the player should continue to come every year. I’m still young and I’m in a fortunate position. I want to take on a bigger role every year. It’s an exciting time in D.C. right now. It’s a fun group to be a part of and I’m thrilled. I wanted to be back in Washington. I love it there. I just want to win there.”


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Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Friday’s loss to the Florida Panthers was disappointing in a number of ways for the Capitals, but some good may yet come from it with the emergence of the third line.

A poor performance in the opening frame led to Todd Reirden switching up his lines to start the second. No change had a greater effect than the addition of Jakub Vrana to the third line in place of Andre Burakovsky to play with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

The move yielded instant results.

Connolly scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the period and added an assist. Vrana also recorded a goal and an assist, while Eller had a three-point night with three assists.

“It was just to make something happen,” Eller said, “Not that [Burakovsky] did something wrong, but just to make something happen and it worked. We kept riding the wave from there on and got two in that period. That seemed to work so that was positive.”

Vrana, Eller and Connolly were three players who had been playing well for the Caps, but were just not producing.

Heading into Friday’s game, Vrana and Eller both had only one point apiece on the season. Connolly had four, but three of those points came earlier in the season while he was skating on the team’s top line.

Friday was his first goal of the season.

“It’s good to get a goal,” Connolly said. “Getting some assists and all that and being a factor on some goals, but it’s nice to see one go in. I’ve had a lot of chances to start the year, thought I’ve been playing well. Lot more shots, lot more chances than I had last year and throughout the last two seasons per game. So I feel I’m ahead of the game right now in terms of that.”

Depth scoring has been a major weakness for the Caps so far in the early season. Washington had gotten only two bottom six goals prior to Friday’s game, and both came in the team’s blowout win over Boston in the opener.

They needed a spark to get offense from the bottom six, and they just may have found it on Friday with that third line combination.

Don’t be surprised to see that Vrana-Eller-Connolly trio stick together in Vancouver for the Caps’ next game against the Canucks.


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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”