Tom Wilson

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The Capitals would like to see Tom Wilson score a few more goals this season

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Tom Wilson is the classic “love him or hate him” type of player depending on which team he happens to be playing for.

If he is playing on your team, you probably like him. If he is not … you probably hate him.

Wilson has spent the first four years of his career playing in the Washington Capitals’ bottom-six, playing an extremely physical brand of hockey that can sometimes come close to crossing the line. He is also a very good defensive player and penalty killer, a fact that can sometimes get overlooked due to his style of play and the punishing hits.

With the Capitals roster getting ripped apart around the edges this summer due to salary cap restrictions there are a couple of openings in the team’s top-six forward group thanks to the departures of veteran forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson.

Wilson would like to take one of those spots, but he knows he needs to add more consistent offense to do it.

The Capitals would like to see that from him as well.

Here is coach Barry Trotz talking about what he wants to see from Wilson this season, via Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post.

“Like all our young players, we’ve been trying to continually have growth with Tom,” Trotz said. “The next step in his evolution — he has that physical element, he’s reliable, he can kill penalties, he can play late-game situations, he’s developed that — now he’s got to find that offensive side. We’ve got to get more production out of Tom Wilson. We’re going to need some more goals out of him. He’s got to get into double digits this year.

He went on to say little improvements like that from players like Wilson are how the team can chip away and deal with the players they lost over the summer, just getting a few extra goals from players that are still on the roster.

Wilson’s production has been incredibly consistent during his career and has averaged about seven goals and about 18 total points per 82 games. He has never scored more than seven goals in a season, the mark he has reached in each of the past two seasons. He did add three goals in the first-round of the Capitals’ series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, including a two-goal effort in their Game 4 win in Toronto.

The Capitals are going to look like a very different team this season after losing Williams, Johansson, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk over the summer and only bringing in Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson on a tryout deal. Still, with a core that includes Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen and what is probably one of the top-three goalies on the planet they should still be a fierce contender in the Eastern Conference.

They may not bring home a third consecutive Presidents’ Trophy, but they are not going away just yet, either.

Looking to make the leap: Nathan Walker

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

Should Nathan Walker jump to the NHL this season, it’ll be a significant one.

Washington’s third-round pick at the 2014 draft, Walker would be in line for his big league debut if he makes the team out of training camp — but that’s not the only milestone at hand.

Should the speedy forward get the call, he’ll also become the first-ever Australian to play in the NHL. Heady stuff for a 23-year-old who, just six years ago, was playing for the Sydney Ice Dogs.

Walker’s rise has been a grind. He logged time in the Czech League, the USHL and the ECHL before emerging as a valuable contributor for Washington’s AHL affiliate in Hershey. Last year, he racked up 11 goals and 23 points in 58 games for the Bears — and another six in 12 playoff games — while emerging as a high-energy guy that liked to finish his checks.

More to the point, Walker’s a pest.

Despite standing just 5-foot-8 and weight 186 pounds, the Aussie a real edge to his game. It was certainly on display last preseason when, in a game against Montreal, Walker fought Andrew Shaw after Shaw tattooed Connor Hobbs into the boards. Walker would go on to scrap three more times for Hershey last year, one of the club’s more active pugilists.

That style of play will work to Walker’s advantage, as Washington’s thinned-out forward group has spots up for grabs — especially in the bottom six. Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik are all gone, which means potential promotions for the likes of Tom Wilson, Brett Connolly and others. Wilson and Winnik were wingers on last year’s fourth line — centered by Jay Beagle — and Walker looks to have the inside track on a replacement spot.

That said, there will be competition. Devante Smith-Pelly was signed in free agency. Riley Barber, who played alongside Walker in Hershey and made his NHL debut last year, is in the mix. Farmhands Chandler Stephenson and Liam O’Brien will battle as well.

But the Caps like Walker, enough to have signed him to a two-year extension this summer. In announcing the deal, GM Brian MacLellan suggested Walker could very well make history this season.

“Walker has a good chance of playing,” MacLellan said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “These guys can all come up, and there’s just going to be more opportunity for them to play this year.”

Capitals prospect Walker looking to make NHL history this season

After being selected in the third-round of the 2014 NHL draft by the Washington Capitals, Nathan Walker had a chance to make some history by being the first player from Australia to play a regular season game in the NHL.

After spending the past four seasons in the American Hockey League for the Hershey Bears, he might finally get a chance to do that this upcoming season as the team looks to replace veteran forward Daniel Winnik on the fourth line.

CSN Washington recently focussed on Walker’s chances for making the team this upcoming season (video above) with Capitals inside Tarik El-Bashir suggesting that Walker has been penciled in to that role this upcoming season.

Walker doesn’t provide a ton of size (listed at 5-8, 186) but he brings a noticeable energy to the ice and isn’t afraid to play a rough, physical game and will even drop the gloves on occasion. On a team that already has Tom Wilson getting under the skin of opponents would make the Capitals’ bottom six more than a little infuriating to have to play against. But as far as actually doing things that are relevant to winning games, Walker’s offense has taken a noticeable step forward the past two seasons with 64 points in 131 games for Hershey. In his first two years of pro hockey he managed just 15 points 73 games. His offensive contributions practically doubled over the past two years.

Brian MacLellan wants you to know that the Caps are still ‘a good team’

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The Washington Capitals will look pretty different when training camp opens.

Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov will all be back, but players like Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner are starting new journeys somewhere else.

Some have suggested that the big number of departures will bring the Caps down a notch or two when it comes to regular season dominance. GM Brian MacLellan simply doesn’t see that happening.

“People make it sound like we’re a lottery team,” said MacLellan, per the Washington Post. “I’m shocked by that. We’ve got good players. I want people to know: We’ve got a good team.”

The Caps will have to rely on young veterans and/or rookies to fill the void left by all of those departures. Andrei Burakovsky and Tom Wilson may have to play bigger roles, while rookies like defensemen Lucas Johansen  and Christian Djoos may crack the lineup sooner than expected.

As of right now, the Caps have five defensemen on one-way contracts (Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson and Taylor Chorney), so there’s plenty of room for those youngsters to leave their mark on the team.

“It’s a good team, I think,” MacLellan said. “We have good goaltending. We have skilled players. We’re going to have to see how Djoos plays, how Johansen plays. We might take a little while to get up to speed in that area. I guess there’s a little uncertainty. But I feel good.”

 McLellan’s team might take a bit of a dip because the supporting cast took a hit this offseason, but expecting them to fall off the map because of it is a little premature.

Let’s talk about why the Penguins traded for Ryan Reaves

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From a big picture perspective the Pittsburgh Penguins acquisition of Ryan Reaves on Friday night isn’t really a major deal. Normally teams swapping fourth-liners and 20 draft spots wouldn’t be the type of move that would move the needle or send any sort of a ripple through the NHL.

This one is a little different.

This is the Pittsburgh Penguins — the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions — ever so slightly deviating from the path that made them the best team in hockey the past two seasons.

As general manager Jim Rutherford put it on Friday night after the trade, “We’re getting a little bit tired of getting beat up game after game.”

Rutherford was critical of the way superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were treated during the postseason and talked about how his team would pretty much have to add one or two players to take care of it since the league does not seem to protect its stars.

Commissioner Gary Bettman quickly dismissed that criticism upon hearing it.

On Friday, Rutherford added that guy and the discussion quickly turned toward the element Reaves brings and what it might mean for the Penguins.

Coach Mike Sullivan talked about how opponents played the Penguins “harder” this past season and that they expect it to continue again this upcoming season, and that Reaves can help with “a little pushback” and how teams “take notice” when he is in the lineup.

Reaves himself talked about what he can provide for the Penguins’ stars.

Here he is, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“It’s more just making sure everybody on the ice knows I’m coming every night. You go run one of my guys, you’ve got 230 pounds coming right back at you. Sometimes that makes guys think twice. When you’re 190 pounds soaking wet and you’re going after somebody on my team, and you’ve got somebody that’s 230 coming after you, sometimes it’s a deterrent, sometimes it’s not. But I think that’s kind of how I’ve established myself over the last year.”

This isn’t the first time the Penguins have been inspired to go down this path due to the treatment of their superstars.

During the 2013-14 playoffs New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and Marc Staal made a habit out of using the back of Crosby’s head and neck for cross-checking target practice in front of the net.

The response from Pittsburgh was outrage that nobody responded and for the team to add some sort of muscle to help take care of that.

Then this happened the following summer.

That guarantee went unfulfilled.

Liberties were still taken against not only Crosby and Malkin, but also against the Penguins’ other superstar, defenseman Kris Letang. He was on the receiving end of two brutal hits that injured him during the year. One resulting in a lengthy suspension to Zac Rinaldo, and another from Shane Doan that knocked Letang out of the lineup for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.

They also tried it with Tom Sestito when they brought him in on a pro tryout contract. He ended up playing 17 games in two years with the Penguins. He was ejected from two of them.

Here he is at the time of his initial tryout talking about what he wanted to provide.

“When you play other teams and they have somebody who not only can play but can run their other guys, you see them holding off,” Sestito said. “They’re not going to be running other guys. Their third- and fourth-line guys aren’t going to run your guys.”

The names change. The idea remains the same.

Deter. Make them hesitate. Make them think about it. Answer back.

Still, the abuse continues.

All of this is a little unfair to Reaves because to his credit he has worked hard to improve his game as a hockey player and to be a little more than just hired muscle. He has worked to adapt his style to the faster NHL and to improve his play defensively. There was evidence of that this past season when he set career highs in goals and points.

If the focus on this acquisition were on that, or on his ability to forecheck, this would simply be a trade involving a couple of fourth-liners and we wouldn’t be talking about it right now.

But we keep going back to the presence, and the element, and pushback, and protection, and deterrence, mainly because that’s what the Penguins seemed to be after with this trade. Or at least what they seem to be selling.

So will any of that work? Can Reaves actually provide that sort of protection?

There is no doubt he will be willing to respond after the fact, because even though his fight totals have decreased in recent years he is still a willing heavyweight.

The issue is whether or not he can stop even a little bit of the abuse toward his teammates by making opponents like Washington’s Tom Wilson or Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky (two of the biggest thorns in the Penguins’ side) take notice.

The easiest way to answer that now is to look at what sort of abuse the Blues — Reaves’ former team — took in recent years.

It was a lot.

Over the past four seasons the St. Louis Blues — Reaves’ former team — were on the receiving end of eight incidents that resulted in supplemental discipline from the NHL (suspension or fine), typically reserved for the dirtiest plays. The only team that was on the receiving end of more during that stretch was the Boston Bruins (10 –and keep in mind, this was a team that had Shawn Thornton and Milan Lucic for most of those years).

During one nine-day stretch in 2014 the Blues lost T.J. Oshie and David Backes to head shots. The two hits resulted in seven games in suspensions while Oshie and Backes both missed playoff games. Reaves was in the lineup both nights.

The next season Minnesota’s Marco Scandella was fined for an illegal hit to the head on Oshie. Last year New Jersey’s Bobby Farnham was hit with a four-game ban for taking a late, cheap run at Dmitri Jaskin while Reaves was on the ice. There are also several other borderline hits that did not result in supplemental discipline (like this, and this, and this).

This isn’t to suggest that Reaves is bad at his job or that he is somehow responsible for those plays.

It is to point out that dirty stuff is still going to happen to star players whether he — or any player like him — is there or not.

Players like Tom Wilson, and Brandon Dubinsky, and Bobby Farnham are paid a lot of money to rattle the cages of players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That is what they do. That is their role and they are going to do it whether there is a physical element in the other team’s lineup or not.

The only thing that can stop it is a significant crackdown from the league to hand out harsher punishments when it happens.

It is very possible that Reaves can be a useful fourth-liner for the Penguins. He will play physical, he will be aggressive on the forecheck, he might chip in a few goals. Is he better than whatever alternative options they could have had for that spot? Or what they had in that spot a year ago? That remains to be seen.

The cost to acquire him really isn’t that high. Oskar Sundqvist seems to have limited upside and the difference between the No. 31 and 51 picks is typically insignificant, especially in what is thought to be a weaker class.

But if the Penguins are hoping for Reaves’ presence to stop opposing players from taking liberties against their stars they are probably setting themselves up for disappointment.

All it might do is get them the occasional pound of flesh in return after the fact and whatever satisfaction that brings them.

Maybe that is all they are looking for. Maybe it is a message to the league itself.

Whatever the reason, it is something they did not need on their way to consecutive championships.