Published On: Thu, May 3rd, 2018

Breaking down the candidates to replace Wilson on Caps' top line

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Tom Wilson‘s three-game suspension is a massive blow to the Washington Capitals‘ aspirations of defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. Not only does the right winger’s physicality make opponents aware of when he’s on the ice, but he’s also been a nice compliment to Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on the Caps’ top line, scoring 14 goals during the regular season.

This trio has also been firing on all cylinders in the playoffs. Ovechkin (8-5-13), Kuznetsov (5-4-9), and Wilson (2-5-7) have combined for 29 points in nine postseason games, so finding the correct replacement for Wilson is a key decision, to say the least.

Here are the forward lines Washington’s been rolling out the last few games:

Alex Ovechkin Evgeny Kuznetsov Tom Wilson
Chandler Stephenson Nicklas Backstrom T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly Lars Eller Devante Smith-Pelly
Jakub Vrana Jay Beagle Alex Chiasson

Assuming Andre Burakovsky remains out of the lineup with an upper-body injury (he hasn’t played since Game 2 of Round 1), whoever enters the lineup in Wilson’s place likely won’t be inserted into a top-line role. Instead, here are five candidates to play alongside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov:

T.J. Oshie

Oshie would be a great fit. He isn’t afraid to go in the corners, can be a playmaker and a finisher, is responsible defensively, and has experience playing with both Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. The problem is that it would leave Nicklas Backstrom without a proven offensive player on the second line. Lineup depth is crucial against the Pens, so this doesn’t seem all that logical.

Brett Connolly

Connolly is a right-handed-shooting right winger currently playing out of position on the third line at left wing, so moving him back to his natural position could be a good fit.

Though he doesn’t bring the same physicality as Wilson, Connolly isn’t afraid to throw his weight around (72 hits during the regular season, 13 during the playoffs), brings size at 6-foot-3, and has scored 30 goals over the past two seasons despite a limited role. He could be Trotz’s best option.

Devante Smith-Pelly

Smith-Pelly is basically a poor man’s Wilson. Weighing 223 pounds and having already delivered 28 hits in the playoffs, he’s Washington’s second-most physical forward. His problem is offense, however, as he posted just seven goals in the regular season, while his career high is only 14.

Yet, given that Ovechkin and Kuznetsov create plenty of offense on their own, replicating Wilson’s toughness might be Trotz’s top priority in order to keep the line’s chemistry intact. Going in that direction would make Smith-Pelly the best choice.

Jakub Vrana

Aside from Oshie, Vrana has the most offensive upside of the options. The 22-year-old was the 13th overall pick in 2014, and while he scored just 13 goals during the regular season, he has exceptional speed and offensive ability.

However, Trotz clearly doesn’t trust him defensively. Vrana has been relegated to fourth-line duties, averaging just over nine minutes per game in the playoffs. Being out on the ice against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin requires acute defensive awareness, so while a promotion to the top line would be exciting, it’s probably unwise.

Chandler Stephenson

Stephenson is probably the least sexy pick of the bunch, but he’s had a nice playoffs so far, tallying five points and playing the sixth-most minutes among Washington’s forwards – meaning Trotz clearly trusts him. He’s fast and kills penalties, too, so even though he’s just 24 with little playoff experience, he wouldn’t be a defensive liability, provided his left-handed shot can play on the right wing.

Like with Oshie, promoting Stephenson would result in breaking up the team’s second line, but it could turn out to be a shrewd move.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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