Sunday, September 26, 2021

Washington Capitals 2021-2022 Previews -- Forwards: Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
-- Abraham Lincoln


“Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson, according to some of his peers, is a menace. A bully. A punk. A goon. He is reckless, vicious, dirty, and bad for hockey.”  That is the lede of an article penned by Ben Shpigel of the New York Times last May.  When the New York Times takes notice of your play on the ice and devotes more than 2,000 words to it, you have arrived, not only as a hockey player, but as one whose performance is a national item of interest.  

What the Times described, and what Capitals fans have come to know, is that Wilson is a far more complete player than the one who arrived in Washington in the 2013 playoffs, his first action in the NHL, as a first round (16th overall) draft pick.  In his first four seasons, Wilson went 21-48-69, plus-12, in 313 games, a 6-13-19, plus-3, line on an 82-game basis.  In four seasons since, he is 70-82-152, plus-19, in 256 games, a 22-26-48, plus-6, scoring line per 82 games. And even though his penalty minutes pr game were up last season (2.04/game) compared to 2019-2020 (1.37), almost a third of those minutes last year (31 of 96) came in consecutive games against the New York Rangers that got a fair amount of attention, especially from Rangers Nation.

Wilson has, despite the protestations and vitriol coming from opponents and their fan bases, become a more disciplined, more rounded player who can play effectively at even strength and shorthanded (he was fourth among forwards in shorthanded ice time last season (1:35)), who contributes valuable offense (four of his 13 goals last season were game-winners), and has become a rather efficient shooter (15.7 percent last season, 14.3 percent over his last four years).

Odd Wilson Fact… The Caps were 10-2-0 last season in games in which Wilson was not credited with a hit.

Odd Wilson Fact II… A 100-penalty minute season would give Tom Wilson seven such seasons as a Capital, putting him all alone in fourth place in team history.  Dale Hunter leads with 12 such seasons.

Fearless’ Take… Wilson continues to improve in subtle ways.  Last season, he averaged better than 1.0 primary assists per 60 minutes for the first time in his career and set a career best with 1.5 assists per 60 minutes.  His points per game last season (0.70) was a career high, as were his 2.5 points per 60 minutes.  And although he took more penalties than he drew, his minus-0.15 net penalties per 60 minutes was third best in his career to date, a number more impressive by virtue of his taking 2.01 penalties per 60 minutes, third fewest in his career.

Cheerless’ Take… But still, penalties, penalties.  The Caps were 9-9-1 in the 19 games in which he took at least one penalty last season.  The Caps were also 16-9-2 in 27 games in which Wilson was not credited with a hit.  Grittership goes only so far.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021…

  • 600 career NHL games (currently 569)
  • 100 career goals (91)
  • 1,200 career penalty minutes (1,123)
  • 1,000 career shots on goal (826)

The Big Question… Will Tom Wilson continue to become more disciplined, or with all the roster moves by other teams, apparently with him in mind, will he be goaded into taking too many needless penalties?

To Wilson might still be only 27 years old, but he could pass 600 regular season games played in the NHL this season. He’s not new to this.  He knows teams are looking hard at how to counter his uniquely rambunctious approach to the game, but by this time he knows his value is on the ice, not in the penalty box.  There is little doubt some teams will try to goad him into taking stupid penalties or try to use players of inferior talent to get him into coincidental penalty situations.  His offensive production continues to improve, now to the point where he is a bona fide top line forward, not merely a body guard to protect more talented teammates.  There will be situations in which he finds himself in the position of defending himself or teammates, but the thing to look for is whether the frequency of such incidents decline.  One thing to watch for is his ice time.  Last season’s 16:32 per game was almost two minutes fewer than his 2019-2020 average (18:16), and his even strength time per game (13:18) was more than a minute less than his average the previous season (14:24).  If he spends more time on the ice and less in the penalty box, it could frustrate opponents keen on agitating him into confrontations and make him that much more effective.

In the end…

Tom Wilson is now an essential cog in the Caps’ lineup.  He is not the cartoonish thug opposing fan bases seem to think he is.  He will always have a large physical dimension to his game, but his offense and growing responsibility in penalty killing are evidence that he is a more complete hockey player than he often gets credit for being.  At 27 years of age, he still has room to improve, and skating on a line with Alex Ovechkin and, as seems likely, Evgeny Kuznetsov, he will have an opportunity to put up bigger numbers to the frustration and consternation of opponents and opponents’ fan bases, showing the league that he has become more a “character” player than a “reputation” player.

Projection: 80 games, 26-23-49, plus-3

Washington Capitals 2021-2022 Previews -- Forwards: Daniel Sprong

Daniel Sprong

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
-- Leonardo da Vinci

Daniel Sprong has been around.  Drafted in the second round (46th overall) in the 2015 Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, at 24 years old he is entering his sixth NHL season with his third NHL team, stints with Pittsburgh and the Anaheim Ducks preceding his arrival in Washington in February 2020 n a trade for defenseman Christian Djoos.  What he has not been, though, is a consistent fixture in any lineup.  He played 18 games as a rookie for the Pens in 2015-2016. A shoulder injury kept him out of NHL action the following season, and he managed only eight games with the Pens in 2017-2018.  He appeared in 63 games in 2018-2019, split between the Penguins and the Ducks, but he dressed for only eight games with the Ducks in 2019-2020.  Last season, Sprong dressed for 42 games with the Caps and posted 13 goals, his 0.31 goals per game and 1.6 goals per 60 minutes being career bests in those rate categories.

Odd Sprong Fact… In 42 games last season, Sprong was credited with one blocked shot, in a 5-4 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on January 19th.

Odd Sprong Fact II… For a player with a reputation as an offense-oriented player, his shot frequency was not matched by team success.  In 19 games in which Sprong was credited with two or more shots on goal, the Caps were 8-8-3.

Fearless’ Take… Sprong has, from time to time, been viewed as perhaps a bit too offense oriented, who might have his ice time managed with that in mind, but the Caps were successful in games in which he had higher ice times, going 9-3-0 in the 12 games in which he skated at least 13 minutes, while the team went 5-5-2 in those games in which he skated under ten minutes.

Cheerless’ Take… Cuz, I usually take the negative view, but I gotta ask, where does this idea of Sprong being a defensive liability come from?  In five NHL seasons, his on-ice goal differential is minus-8, but he had a minus-9 with Anaheim in 2018-2019, a team with a mediocre team defense over all (tied for 18th in scoring defense).  His career shot attempts-for on ice at 5-on-5 over his four seasons is minus-8 on almost 2,800 shot attempts, for and against.  He might not be a stalwart Selke defensive type, but if his offense helps keep the puck out of opponents’ hands, what is the problem?

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021…

  • 200 career NHL games (currently 139)
  • 100 games as a Capital (currently 42)
  • 50 NHL goals (32)

The Big Question… Can Daniel Sprong be a regular fixture in the Capitals’ lineup?

It has been a difficult road for Daniel Sprong to get regular playing time in his five seasons.  He has averaged 28 games per season with a high of 63, split between Pittsburgh (16) and Anaheim (47) in 2018-2019.  He logged 42 games with the Caps last season, and he finished strong with six goals in his last eight games, three of them game-winners.  He could slide into the right side of the third line with Lars Eller in the middle (once Nicklas Backstrom returns to the lineup after his hip rehabilitation) and Conor Sheary on the left side.  With depth at forward being a bit of an issue, especially on the wings, Sprong has an opportunity to assert himself as a regular in the lineup.  It is worth noting that his goals-per-60 minutes were best in seasons in which he was frequently in the lineup (1.6/60 in 42 games with the Caps last year, 1.4/60 in 47 games with Anaheim in 2018-2019).  He, with Conor Sheary, could make for an interesting third line this season.

In the end…

Daniel Sprong has had an up-and-down career to date, but he is still only 24 years old with an opportunity to become a fixture in the Capitals’ lineup.  His late-season surge last year perhaps provided a glimpse of what he can contribute, even from a third-line position.  Picking up where he left off could provide more balance among the forward lines, not to mention relieving a bit of the pressure with Nicklas Backstrom out for the time being.

Projection: 68 games, 17-13-30, minus-2