Evgeny Kuznetsov, the center of capitals, sat at his locker room, upset his thoughts as he pondered an issue that was of great concern to Washington for the first five weeks of the season. He looked to his right defender Matt Niskanen, and Niskanen just looked back, perhaps curious about the answer too. The Capitals have already tried five different straight wings with Kuznetsov and captain Alex Ovechkin in the first 14 games, so why are so many players fighting alongside two of the world's most talented players?
"I do not know," Kuznetsov finally said. "I would like to know that too."
Tom Wilson had a lot of free time, forced to watch his team-mates and the revolving door in his old place of play. Last season, he emerged as the rare right wing that can successfully complete Ovechkin and Kuznetsov – he also played a lot of matches with center Nicklas Backstrom on this line instead of Kuznetsov – for a long time. Since he had to serve a suspension of 20 games for an illegal control of the head, he gained a better understanding of what it takes to play there. What may seem like hard work is not without burdens.
"It's really a unique style of play, and you have to get used to it," Wilson said. "I do not have a secret formula for you, but I tried to talk to some of these guys about what could help them."
Before scoring 14 goals and 21 assists on the record, Wilson was rewarded with a $ 31 million, six-year contract. Former coach, Barry Trotz, had for the first time brought Wilson into a lineage with Ovechkin and Backstrom in 2014, while it was in his second season in the NHL. But he was not ready to take responsibility for playing more than 16 minutes per game against the best competitions. Yes, he was on the ice with two superstars, but attacking and opposing defenders often fit that description. They were talented enough to take advantage of any mistakes and with so many changes in a game, there was more room for error. Forward Jakub Vrana has learned that last week, a setback behind Washington's net against Dallas resulted in a goal from the Stars. Vrana was offside the next game.
"A lot of my work has been the [defensive] zone, "said Wilson." When we are in zone D, what can I do to make sure we spend as little time as possible there and limit the risks? These guys are at their best when they have the washer and they play in the o-zone, so how can you get out of your area quickly? …
"[Ovechkin] played well in defense last year in the playoffs. He played incredible. But there are times when maybe he did not, and I have to be there, you know? And it looks like any teammate. If you are not in position, your teammate should bail you out. "
While Vrana's elite speed teamed well with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin offensively, it was a trio of three forwards who were not known for their defensive responsibility and who, unsurprisingly, allowed for many quality opportunities. Head coach Todd Reirden propelled Dmitrij Jaskin to this location for the Capitals games against Edmonton and Pittsburgh. While Jaskin's ability to limit the opposition's offensive is impressive, his chances of scoring remain a question mark. In 11 games, he has not scored a goal and two assists, and his three seasons have been ruled out of double-digit goals, although he was limited in fourth in St. Louis.
There is also what Wilson called a "mental burden". Spending a few games without scoring any other position in the formation would not necessarily have a big impact, but there is more pressure to produce with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. And especially if they do not score, this is the third player considered the problem. A new combination can take time, a luxury that is not often attributed to the top trio.
"I think you can be really intimidated by playing with these two guys, whether it's Kuzy or Nick in the middle with O on the other side," said TJ Oshie, the only other striker on the team to have had a prolonged success playing there. "Immediately, when you go on that line, every time you have the puck, you just have to find it and give it to him. But everyone is watching them, so there is usually someone around. It works sometimes, but often you place pucks in areas where there is not much space.
"It seems that the more we play with them easily, the better the line. The more pucks you get and you go after them, you give them pucks, and then at the transition, get them the puck, they can do some very fun things with it.
Wilson said the hardest thing for him to understand was how to adapt his individual style to that role. "They do not really want you to drop the puck," he said with a chuckle. Nevertheless, his physique could create space and opportunities for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov when he lobbied with a murderous bruise, or a big shot separated puck player.
"We just figured out that, yes, I'm not as good as Kuzy, but if the puck is in the corner, I'll go get it and try to get it to him," Wilson said. "We were not trying to be what we were, and I think it was kind of understanding from the first day. You know what, there are things that come with playing with these guys, but there is a lot of good that comes with playing with these guys.
The unpredictability of Kuznetsov is his own animal. He is creative and very competent. What makes it so effective is that opposing teams often do not know what they will do next. The problem is that his wingers might not be either, and because of that, Wilson missed a few passes when they started playing together. But over time, Wilson became familiar with his trends, and Kuznetsov suggested some areas of the ice where he could go and expect the puck to find him.
"He always says, 'Just put your staff on the ice and I'll send it to you,'" said Wilson.
But communication is not always so clear.
"We are still talking in Russian," admitted Kuznetsov.
"All the time," said Wilson.
Finally, the trio adopted a scheme in which Kuznetsov would say what he needed for Ovechkin in Russian, then turn to Wilson and say it in English. Although Jaskin grew up in the Czech Republic, he was born in Russia and is fluent in the language, a major asset to play on this line.
And for all the quirks associated with the right-front position, Wilson would have no other solution.
"You will not hear me complain once about playing with these guys," he said. "I could say all this, then I could come back and my first match could be bad, you know? It's hockey. You have to stay with that and do the right things. Let's hope that happens and that we complete each other well. "
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