Backstrom Better, Wilson on the Way

Posted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel

Back in September, the Caps were slated to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 or 65 players at training camp for the 2012-13 season. The NHL lockout scotched that camp as we all know, and now the Caps are preparing to embark upon a hurry-up version of training camp as prelude to an abbreviated 48-game season.

Instead of several dozen players, there will be just over two dozen players in attendance when Caps training camp gets underway this Sunday.

The list of forward invitees swelled from 13 to 14 yesterday when Washington issued an embossed invitation to teenaged forward Tom Wilson, one of the team’s two first-round choices in the 2012 NHL Draft. Currently playing for Plymouth in the OHL, the 18-year-old Wilson experienced some disappointment last month when he was left off the roster of the Canadian entry for the 2013 World Junior Championship.

Wilson returned to Plymouth, and the Canadians failed to medal at the tourney for the first time since 1998. He’ll play for Plymouth tonight before reporting to Kettler on Saturday for Caps camp. Wilson has been excellent for the Whalers thus far this season, totaling a dozen goals and 34 points to go along with 59 penalty minutes and an impressive plus-16 rating in just 30 games. The six-foot-four, 210-pound right wing totaled just 27 points in 49 games in his draft season of 2011-12.

It’s quite normal for freshly drafted players playing junior hockey in Canada to be invited to camp. NHL clubs are eager to have a look at their newest organizational additions, and casting them into the fishbowl with veteran players in a training camp environment often affirms (and sometimes disavows) the reasons for drafting the player in the first place.

Rarely are these teenaged players ready to step right into regular NHL duty less than a year after hearing their name called on the draft floor, but the few who do make that leap are generally those taken in the first round of the draft.

Under normal circumstances, Wilson would spend a week or so at Caps camp, maybe get into an exhibition game or two, and then be returned to his junior team. If he really stood out, he might even stick around for the start of the season; NHL clubs are permitted to retain junior players on entry-level deals for up to 10 games before “burning” the first of the three years of those entry-level pacts.

With the season shortened from 82 to 48 games in 2012-13, that 10-game figure has been pro-rated to six. So, should Wilson sufficiently impress the Caps here at camp in the upcoming week, it’s at least possible that he’d get a sweater for the team’s opening night tilt on Jan. 19. The Caps could play Wilson in as many as six games without him playing away the first year of the contract he signed last July.

Should Wilson really wow the brass, it’s possible he’d stay in Washington all season. Of course, the Caps also could simply return him to Plymouth at the end of the week. The latter is easily the more likely scenario.

One thing in Wilson’s favor is numbers. It’s easier to open eyes when competing among a dozen or so forwards than among the usual 24-30 that are in attendance at a typical NHL training camp. And since it’s still not known whether Nicklas Backstrom and/or Brooks Laich will be ready when the bell rings on Jan. 19, the door is slightly ajar even before Wilson’s arrival here.

Washington’s medical staff hasn’t been able to evaluate, examine or treat any of its injured players pending official NHLPA ratification of the new CBA, a process that should be finished tomorrow. Until then, the Caps don’t really have a handle on how much time – if any – Backstrom and/or Laich might miss.

On the “very, very good news” front, Backstrom visited a concussion specialist in Michigan earlier this week and received a clean bill of health. The Caps center had suffered an injury after being checked into the boards in a Dec. 26 KHL game that had sidelined him since, and Backstrom and his agent were merely being proactive in treatment in the absence of being able to be treated by Caps’ staff.

This morning, Backstrom spoke to the assembled media and pronounced himself fit.

“I feel good,” said Backstrom. “I’m one hundred percent. I know there is a lot of speculation about what’s going on and stuff. It’s something I wanted to check out. So I went to Michigan and got it checked out, my neck. No concussion. So we can all be calm.”

Laich skated lightly on Thursday and not at all on Friday. He is believed to be suffering from a lower body injury sustained while playing in Switzerland during the lockout.

Wilson was invited to D.C. before Backstrom pronounced himself fit. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that both Backstrom and Laich were to miss the start of the season. That would leave Washington with just a dozen healthy forwards heading into camp, including Wilson. Most teams routinely dress a dozen forwards for NHL games. Washington might be able to get a quick glimpse at Wilson early in the season, if he proves he’s capable of assuming several minutes a night.

Obviously, both Backstrom and Laich are top six forwards with Washington and have been for several seasons. It’s unreasonable to expect an 18-year-old kid to step in and fill that role, even in the short term. But it’s not like that.

Even if they were to be without Backstrom and Laich, the Caps actually have more than six forwards with top six pedigree, skills sets and/or aspirations, so Wilson would merely need to man the flank on the fourth line if he were to still be around at this time next week.

Newly acquired center Mike Ribeiro could man the middle of the top unit, let’s say with Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin. A second line could be cobbled together with Mathieu Perreault, Troy Brouwer and newcomer Wojtek Wolski. Veterans Jason Chimera and Joel Ward could surround Jay Beagle on a third line, leaving Wilson to skate with Matt Hendricks and Joey Crabb.

Washington’s other options for a 12th forward in our make believe scenario are to recall a player from AHL Hershey or sign an unrestricted free agent. Veteran Jeff Taffe is currently the Bears’ leading scorer, but he is not signed to a Washington contract at this time. Signing a free agent would make sense if the Caps believed either Backstrom or Laich would be sidelined on a long-term basis.

Washington has sufficient salary cap space to make such an addition, and several veteran players are still milling about the ranks of the unsigned. Until ratification officially takes place tomorrow, NHL clubs aren’t permitted to make trades or to sign unrestricted free agent players.

We’ve never been in the business of starting or spreading rumors here, and we’re not about to start now. But just as an example, here are a few veteran forwards who have yet to put signature to contract for the 2012-13 season: Brian Rolston, Petr Sykora, Mike Knuble, Eric Fehr, Tom Kostopoulos, Andrew Brunette, Brendan Morrison, Daymond Langkow and Jason Arnott.

Caps fans are more than familiar with more than a few of those names. In a perfect world, Backstrom and Laich are both ready to go next Saturday and we’re just engaging in some harmless pre-camp speculation. It sounds like Backstrom is good to go, at least he thinks so. The Caps will be hoping to receive similarly good news about Laich at some point this week.

Posted in: Sports
next up:

Poti Takes Aim at Improbable Comeback

January 14, 2013

Fourteen years after his NHL debut and just over two months shy of his 36th birthday, Tom Poti feels like he still has some unfinished business. The Caps defenseman missed the entire 2011-12 season with a fractured pelvis that he originally believed was a recurrence of a nagging groin injury that shelved him for most of the 2010-11 season. Poti played just 21 games in 2010-11 and last laced up the blades for NHL action nearly two years ago, on Jan. 12, 2011 against the Lightning in Tampa Bay. For most of the last two years, it was believed that Poti was suffering from a groin injury that wasn’t responding to treatment. The actual nature of the injury didn’t become clear until well after it was incurred.

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