Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Forwards: Tom Wilson

"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

On April 26, 2013, Tom Wilson had an assist for his Plymouth Whalers’ on a game-tying goal with just 4:33 in regulation, capping a furious Whaler comeback from a 4-0 deficit to force overtime in Game 5 of Plymouth’s Ontario Hockey League playoff series against the London Knights. Alas, London would score in overtime to eliminate the Whalers and end the junior hockey career for Tom Wilson.

Two weeks later Wilson would find himself dressing for Game 5 of the Washington Capitals’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series against the New York Rangers. Alas, the Caps would lose that series in a seventh game.

On October 1, 2013, just 466 days after Wilson was drafted 16th overall by the Capitals in the 2012 entry draft, he found himself in the Caps’ lineup in the 2013-2014 season opener in Chicago to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. Alas, the season did not end well for the Caps, as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Before you start thinking that maybe Tom Wilson had something to do with the outcomes described above, stop. We mark them only to point out that it has been something of a whirlwind ride for Wilson in less than six months, from competing in a playoff series in junior hockey to doing so on a bigger stage just weeks later to finding himself in the Opening Night lineup in the NHL at the tender age of 19.

Maybe it was too fast, at least the last part about making the Opening Night roster for the Caps to start the 2013-2014 season. That, however, was a strategic decision taken by the Caps due to a lack of a full range of alternatives. Personnel rules dictated that the Caps’ choices were to keep Wilson on the parent roster or return him to Plymouth for a final year of junior hockey. Giving him a year in Hershey to hone his skills with the Bears was not an option.

So, young Tom Wilson got to spend his apprenticeship at the top rung of the organizational ladder. What he did not get as part of this apprenticeship was a lot of experience, at least on the ice in games. Wilson averaged 7:56 in ice time per game. Of 34 rookie forwards playing in at least half of their teams’ games this season, Wilson was 32nd in average ice time. Here is another way to look at that. Wilson skated 651 total minutes this season in 82 games, 24th in total minutes among rookie forwards. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov just above Wilson with 682 minutes, but he did it in just 52 games played (13:06/game).

Wilson, as befits his limited ice time, did not rank especially highly among his rookie forward cohort – 39 in points (10), tied for 41st in goals (3), tied for 33rd in assists (7), 31st in shots on goal (63). There was an area in which he did rank highly, though. Wilson led all rookie forwards by a wide margin in penalty minutes with 157 (24 more than Edmonton’s Luke Gazdic). He was just one minute behind Tampa Bay defenseman Radko Gudas for the top spot among all rookie skaters.

A large portion of that was the product of Wilson’s willingness to stand up for himself and teammates. He was fifth in the league in fighting majors (14). But there was a general edginess to his game that was reflected in his penalty profile. If you look at the penalties of a more violent nature, Wilson has a broad-spectrum resume: roughing (6 penalties/12 minutes), high-sticking (2/4), cross-checking (2/4) elbowing (1/2), boarding (1/2), charging (3/9, including a major penalty), instigator (1/2), and slashing (2/4). Add in a game misconduct and two ten minute misconducts, and a total of 139 of his 151 total penalty minutes (92.1 percent) were the product of his “edginess.”

His apprenticeship was brief in terms of ice time; we did not say it was easy.

Fearless’ Take… How many players did Tom Wilson play more than 100 minutes with this season at 5-on-5? Jay Beagle, Aaron Volpatti, and… uh, that’s it. Beagle and Volpatti. And you wonder how he put up meager offensive numbers?

Cheerless’ Take… Cuz, Wilson played more than five 5-on-5 minutes with 17 forwards this season. Know how many he played with where they had a Corsi-for percentage over 50 percent? Martin Erat and… uh, that’s it.  Erat.

Fearless’ Rebuttal… Hold on, cuz. Take a look at Beagle and Volpatti, those two guys he spent most of his time with. With Wilson, Beagle was 49.1 percent; apart he was 41.7 percent. With Wilson, Volpatti was 42.6 percent; apart Volpatti was 28.6 percent (no, that is not a typo). Even Erat was worse apart from Wilson (49.7 percent) than with him (54.1 percent), although you might chalk that up to quality of competition effects.

Odd Wilson Fact… Tom Wilson was one of only three rookie forwards to play in all 82 games this season. The others were Nathan MacKinnon and Tyler Johnson, who also happen to be finalists for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year.

Game to Remember… November 5th versus New York Islanders. You always remember your first, and for Tom Wilson there were two of them on this night.  The Caps were hosting the Islanders fresh off a Gimmick win over the Florida Panthers that got the Caps to 7-7-0, the first time they were at .500 since they split their first two games of the season.  The Islanders were feeling fat and happy having won consecutive games for the first time in the 2013-2014 season, the second win coming at the expense of the Boston Bruins. 

The teams exchanged the lead several times.  New York scored first on a goal by John Tavares early in the first period.  The Caps grabbed the lead on goals by John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin, the latter on a power play, 75 seconds apart early in the second.  The Isles tied it 17 seconds after the Ovechkin goal, but the Caps took the lead back just 2:12 later on a Marcus Johansson power play goal.  Then, just 1:20 after the Johansson goal, the Caps stuck in the dagger.

Wilson started the play when he collected a loose puck in the Capitals’ zone, turned up ice, and backhanded the puck across the ice to Steve Oleksy heading up the right wing.  Oleksy carried it to the Islander line, then sent the puck back to Wilson filling in on the left side.  With a burst of speed, Wilson leaned hard into the middle, drawing a delayed tripping call from Frans Nielsen as he reached the top of the crease and tumbled to the ice with Nabokov going down to try to seal the left side of the net.  Wilson did not give up on the play, though.  From the seat of his pants to the left of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, Wilson threaded a pass through the skates of Islander Josh Bailey and onto the stick of the Caps’ Alexander Urbom.  From the top of the left wing circle, Urbom wound up and fired a slap shot past Nabokov before he could scramble to his feet, giving Urbom his first NHL goal in almost two years and Wilson his first NHL point.

The Caps made it 5-2 before the second intermission, but there was still one item of unfinished business.  With 15:25 gone in the third period Thomas Hickey was sent off for holding Alex Ovechkin.  On the ensuing power play the Caps worked the Islanders in their own zone for a faceoff when a puck was deflected into the crowd.  On the next draw, Mikhail Grabovski pulled the puck back to Ovechkin who faked a shot and walked the puck a couple of steps down the left wing.  He retraced his steps to the top of the faceoff circle, then threw the puck into the middle where Wilson was sliding into the slot.  Wilson redirected the puck past Nabokov for his first NHL goal and first multi-point game in the Caps’ 6-2 win.  All in all, Wilson had a “Wilson Hat Trick,” a goal, an assist, and a ten-minute misconduct penalty he took with seven seconds left.

Game to Forget… December 10th versus Tampa Bay.  On a night when pucks would be flying into nets with alarming frequency, Tom Wilson would barely get a sniff of the action, let alone get in on the fun.  The Caps fell behind early to the Lightning, 3-0, just 11:07 into the game.  That put a premium on offense for the Caps, and Wilson being as green as he was, head coach Adam Oates super glued him to the bench.  The strategy paid off, the Caps clawing all the way back to tie the game with 32.4 seconds left before winning it in the trick shot competition.  For Wilson it was a short, forgettable night.  Five shifts (only one in each of the second and third periods), 3:17 of ice time, no points, no shot attempts.

In the end…

It is one thing to come up short when presented with opportunities to excel.  If this had been the case with Tom Wilson, you might say, “okay, at least it was a learning experience.”  But in this instance Wilson logged fewer than 700 total minutes for the season and did it largely with linemates who might have dragged down his performance more than vice versa.  Even though Wilson dressed for 82 games it would be hard to say just what the Caps have here.  In the limited instances in which he was given more responsibility or more exposure to higher quality teammates at the offensive end he did not look out of place.  Consider it something to build on; you’ll sleep better.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Forwards: Joel Ward

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
-- George Eliot

In his first four seasons in the NHL Joel Ward was one of a class of hockey player who toils largely anonymously, so far as professional athletes go.  He was the player who might chip in an occasional goal or two, but was called upon more often to do the heavy lifting in the corners and along the walls, in the hard work areas of an NHL hockey rink, freeing pucks for teammates to carry to the net.

Then Ward had his turn in the spotlight, scoring seven goals in 12 post season games for the Nashville Predators in the 2011 post season.  It was just the ticket for a player entering unrestricted free agency.  It would be the Washington Capitals that offered Ward a contract to his liking, a four year deal, and Ward joined the team bringing the hope that he could extend his 2011 playoff performance into four years of hard-nosed, opportunistic effort.

Two years later, Ward had 14 goals in 112 regular season games and two goals in 21 post-season games, one of them rather memorable.  Still, it might not have been quite what Ward or fans had in mind when he arrived in Washington.

That changed in 2013-2014.  One of the things that plagued Ward in his first two seasons in Washington was his inability to sustain good starts to seasons.  He got out of the gate with a solid effort this past season, going 3-3-6 in his first ten-game segment and 6-1-7 in his second segment.  He slowed down a bit in his third segment (0-4-4), but picked up in the fourth (3-3-6) and sustained that level of effort over the remainder of the season to finish with career highs in goals (24), assists (25), points (49), power play goals (6), power play assists (4) shorthanded goals (2, tied with his total in 2008-2009), game-winning goals (4, tied with his total from 2010-2011), and shooting percentage (18.0 percent).

Ward’s performance was the embodiment of the importance of secondary scoring.  In 21 games in which he recorded a goal the Caps were 13-3-5; they were 21-10-7 in 38 games in which he recorded a point.  He was part of what was the most consistently effective line for the Caps this season with Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera. 

Ward was an especially effective teammate.  Consider the two forwards with whom he spent most of his 5-on-5 ice time: Jason Chimera (84.3 percent of Ward’s 5-on-5 ice time) and Eric Fehr (36.5 percent).  When paired with Ward, Chimera had a goals-for percentage of 53.8 percent, Fehr had a goals-for percent of 53.6.  When apart from Ward those percentages dropped to 41.7 percent for Chimera and 45.2 percent for Fehr.  However, Ward carried his 50-plus goals-for percent with him when he was apart from Chimera (57.1) and Fehr (54.2).

Fearless’ Take… Of 201 forwards recording at least 100 power play minutes this season, Joel Ward had the ninth best shooting percentage (27.3 percent).  Ward had six goals on 22 shots in 142 minutes.  He was very economical in his use of power play time as well.  He had one power play goal per 23.8 minutes of power play time, 28th best in the league among those 201 forwards.

Cheerless’ Take… Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.  Not to say Joel Ward wasn’t good, but let’s not get too carried away.  For instance, among Capital forwards playing in at least 10 games Joel Ward had the second lowest offensive zone start shares at 5-on-5 (44.8 percent, to Jason Chimera’s 43.8 percent).  Despite the burden of low offensive zone start frequency he had the highest PDO among forwards playing at least 20 games with the Caps (102.7).  That number was more the product of on-ice shooting percentage (10.3 percent, tops among that set of forwards) than on-ice save percentage (92.4 percent, seventh among those forwards).  That 10.3 percent on-ice shooting percentage was itself largely a product of Ward’s own shooting percentage at 5-on-5 – 14.7 percent, best among those forwards and 20th of 292 forwards playing in at least 75 percent of their team’s games.  Makes one wonder if Ward’s season wasn’t puck-lucky as much as plucky.

Odd Ward Fact… In six season coming into the 2013-2014 campaign Joel Ward had two career four-game point streaks.  In the 2013-2014 season he had three such streaks, all of them coming in the 2014 portion of the season.

Game to Remember… November 1st versus Philadelphia.  With the Capitals heading to Philadelphia to face the Flyers and Alex Ovechkin being held out of the lineup with an upper-body injury sustained against the Vancouver Canucks, someone had to step up in a big way for the Caps.  On a night that was all Caps, a lot of guys did, but none stepped up higher than Joel Ward.  With the Caps holding a 1-0 lead early in the second period, Ward picked up a loose puck behind the Flyers’ net.  Skating the puck around into the corner to the right of goalie Steve Mason, Brayden Schenn tried to cut Ward off.  Ward spun away leaving Schenn defending air. Ward walked out from behind the net and tried to stuff the puck under Mason.  The first whack didn’t work, but the second one did to put the Caps up, 2-0.

Ward added a goal late in the second period when he completed a nifty passing sequence starting with Jason Chimera peeling the puck from the left wing wall and backhanding it to Mikhail Grabovski in the left wing circle.  Grabovski backhanded a pass to Ward, and Ward snapped a wrist shot off the far post and in for his second of the game, giving the Caps a 5-0 lead.  On a power play in the third period Ward completed his first career hat trick when he converted another backhand pass from Chimera, taking the pass at the top of the crease and snapping it past relief goalie Ray Emery to cap the scoring in a 7-0 Capitals win.  As impressive as the hat trick was, Ward achieved it (two goals at even strength) despite an offensive zone start share of 20.0 percent.  His Corsi-for percentage was 66.7 percent at 5-on-5.  It was a solid night all around.

Game to Forget… April 4th versus New Jersey.  With the Capitals’ playoff hopes hanging by a thread, the Caps went to New Jersey hoping to get a foothold for one last push to make the post-season.  It ended up being nothing but frustration for Joel Ward.  In what would be a tightly-played game Ward would record his third-lowest amount of ice time for the season (13:12).  Part of the reason for that was that he took three minor penalties, his only game of the season in which he took more than one penalty.  As it turned out he did not record a shot on goal in those 13 minutes (including 1:35 in power play ice time), and the Caps lost, 2-1.

In the end…

There were far more high points than lows in the play of Joel Ward this season.  It was not the case of a player setting career bests in multiple categories from low baselines. Ward was part of – and arguably the most important part – of what was on more nights than not, it seemed, the Caps most effective forward line.  He was a critical ingredient on a line that might have been more than the sum of its parts, something that could not be said for the rest of the team in the 2013-2014 season.

Grade: A

Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America