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If Erat's Out, Options Abound for Oates

May 9, 2013

Caps left wing Martin Erat suffered an upper body injury late in the first period of Wednesday’s Game 4 of the Caps’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the New York Rangers. When Caps coach Adam Oates addressed the media shortly after 1 p.m. on Thursday, the team was still awaiting MRI results that would shed more light on Erat’s condition, but Oates didn’t sound at all optimistic that the winger would be able to play in Friday’s pivotal Game 5 of the series at Verizon Center.

Washington has four options to fill in for Erat, and the most intriguing of the four might be rookie Tom Wilson, who has yet to play in the NHL.


Hear me out.


Erat had been skating the left side of a line with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer. After Erat’s injury, Eric Fehr moved up to skate in Erat’s spot. Although Fehr is a right wing by trade and a right-handed shot, he filled in capably on the left side for a few games earlier this season.


Even though Fehr is one of three Caps players who have yet to record a point in these playoffs, he has also been one of Washington’s most effective forwards in all three zones in this series. The hope is that Fehr can help jumpstart that trio at even-strength. Brouwer has the lone goal among the three linemates and it came late in the second period of Game 4.


Joel Ward moved seamlessly up from the right side of the fourth line to the right side of the third line with Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera, and Ward has been instrumental in creating three of the Capitals’ last four goals against the Rangers.


With Fehr and Ward being promoted, there is a spot available on the fourth line in the Washington lineup for Friday’s Game 5.


Because lefty-shooting Matt Hendricks and right-handed Jay Beagle are the two players who will be skating on the fourth line in Game 5, and because both are capable of manning the middle of that line, Oates has some flexibility as to whom he decides to deploy as the third member of the unit.


If Hendricks were to man the middle and Beagle were to play the right side, either Wojtek Wolski or Aaron Volpatti could slot in as the left wing. Wolski hasn’t played since April 11, but Volpatti played in 12 of Washington’s final 14 regular season games.


Volpatti’s game is more suited to a grinding, fourth line style of game while Wolski is a more skilled player whose talents are better suited for an opening in the top six. That would likely give Volpatti the leg up if the choice were simply between those two. But with Wednesday’s elimination of the AHL Hershey Bears from the Calder Cup playoffs, there were two more players on the ice for Washington’s Thursday practice session.


Washington recalled Wilson and fellow right wing Joey Crabb from AHL Hershey on Thursday morning. Crabb spent most of the season with the Caps, scoring two goals in 26 games. He added six goals and a dozen points in a dozen games with the AHL Hershey Bears, and had five goals in as many games for the Bears in the Calder Cup playoffs.


The 19-year-old Wilson was Washington’s first-round (16th overall) choice in the 2012 NHL Draft. He totaled 23 goals and 58 points in 48 games with the OHL Plymouth Whalers in 2012-13, adding nine goals and 17 points in a dozen playoff games. After Plymouth was eliminated, Wilson joined the Bears for three games in the Calder Cup playoffs. He scored his first pro goal in the second of those three games.


Oates’ other option is to have Hendricks play the left side and Beagle man the middle. That would shift the opening to the right side, where either Wilson or Crabb could fit.


Crabb probably knows the Washington system better, but Wilson’s frame (6-foot-4, 210) and his banging, physical style would fit well with Beagle and Hendricks on Washington’s fourth line and in this series against a Rangers team that likes to play that style of game.


If Wilson were to make his NHL debut in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he’d be the third Caps player ever to do so, and the first to turn the trick in more than 13 years, since Trent Whitfield on April 17, 2000. Prior to Whitfield, both Chris Felix (on April 10, 1988) and Grant Jennings (April 26, 1988) joined the Caps during the 1988 Stanley Cup playoffs.


Felix and Jennings were scoreless in one game each; Whitfield was held without a point in three postseason contests in 2000.


Wilson is one of Washington’s most promising prospects, a player who possesses a frame and skill set that is in high demand in the NHL. He is certainly going to play in the NHL sooner or later, and he doesn’t strike me as the type who would shrink away from making his NHL debut in Game 5 of a tied playoff series. It was prescient of the Capitals to invite Wilson to the team's abbreviated training camp in January so he could continue to get a handle on Washington's systems of play.


If Wilson were to play more than five games in a Washington uniform this spring, the first year of his entry-level contract would kick in. I don’t see that as a problem; if the Caps had to cross that bridge, it would mean they advanced to at least the next round. And if a guy is good enough to play and he helps you win hockey games, contracts be damned.


That’s my opinion, and my opinion alone. The mileage of the powers that be may vary.


Oates has four options, and he wasn’t tipping his hand as to which way he was leaning, but Friday morning’s skate should shed more light on the pending decision.


In other Caps news, forward Brooks Laich had a good day on the ice at Thursday’s practice as he continues to recuperate from what he termed a minor groin procedure, and not sports hernia surgery as had been erroneously reported by some media outlets. Laich spoke at length about his rehab on and off the ice, but he is still not quite ready for prime time.


Wilson also held court for reporters after today’s practice session.