The Washington Capitals have several questions to answer this offseason, and one of the biggest centers around Tom Wilson.
Washington announced last week that Wilson will miss 6-8 months as he recovers from ACL surgery on his left knee. While he is expected to make a full recovery, he will still miss significant time to open the 2022-23 campaign, leaving the Capitals without a key piece of the puzzle for the first couple of months.
No. 43 is not only a major physical presence and versatile two-way forward, but he is also a major asset on the top-6. He is coming off an All-Star year that saw him dish a career-high 24 goals, 28 assists and 52 points through 78 games. The 28-year-old was just one of three Capitals (Alex Ovechkin, 50 and Evgeny Kuznetsov, 24) that dished at least 20 goals on the season. He ranked second on the team in goals and fourth in points.
At the other end of the ice, he was an impact player who engaged in puck battles, blocked shots, kill penalties and log heavy minutes. Not only that, but Wilson played a much more disciplined and responsible game while still maintaining his “tough guy” status and sticking up for his teammates.
“My game’s kind of changed over the years and more responsibility kind of every year. I think in this league, you have to be improving every offseason,” Wilson said. “You have to be improving, you have to be taking on more responsibility because there’s so many great players that you can’t get complacent, you can’t get comfortable. You just got to keep demanding the best from yourself and pushing yourself forward. And that’s something I’ve tried to do every day since I’ve been in the league.”
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Looking at the recovery timeline for Wilson, the soonest No. 43 could be back is in late November or early December. The Capitals will likely place Wilson on the long-term injured reserve as he recovers, which would open up roughly $5.16 million in cap space to work with. Not only that, but Nicklas Backstrom’s future is still in flux as he ponders his next steps with regard to a lingering hip issue.
One name to consider could be pending UFA right wing Valeri Nichushkin. The 6-4, 210-pounder broke out with 25 goals and 52 points through 62 games with the high-flying Avalanche this season. However, he needs to show that he can remain a consistent top-6 producer going forward. Playing with the right combination, the 27-year-old could be a good option if the price is right (his breakout year could lead to a pay raise, after all).
Beyond Nichushkin and some other free agent RWs, Washington could also turn its attention to its youth in Hershey and shuffle around wingers. Big bodies like Aliaksei Protas and Brett Leason have shown they can log NHL minutes. Other call-ups like Joe Snively and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby will also look to stay in the mix, and Snively is expected to remain up with the big club as his one-way deal begins.
Another potential name to look out for is Beck Malenstyn. Though he’s a left wing, the 2016 fifth-rounder is also a big body, versatile forward and penalty killer who loves to play a physical, hard-working game and can generate speed.
The Capitals would also have to look for players to fill in on the right side, and many of the call-ups are lefties who play on the other side. While that may not make or break things, it is something to consider. Also, the rookies likely aren’t going to be putting up 60-point campaigns right off the bat.
Then of course is the option of making a big splash and seeing if there’s any potential in signing a Nazem Kadri-type star. However, Kadri is approaching 32 and would carry a major cap hit, and with the team’s goal being to get younger, that may not exactly be the next logical step. Plus, the team also has other areas that need to be addressed via the market, the most important being the goaltending situation.
If the Capitals rely on their youth to fill the voids upfront and also see Connor McMichael take over a bigger role down the middle, Washington will need more consistency from the likes of Anthony Mantha, who should benefit from being healthy to open the new year. The team will also need to see T.J. Oshie carry over his momentum from the postseason.
In the end, the Capitals have plenty of options, but when it comes to filling No. 43’s role, it won’t be an easy task.