Wilson, Erskine drop the gloves in 2 big-time tilts
It may be a dangerous game to play, but Capitals coach Adam Oates doesn’t shy away from comparing Sharks captain Joe Thornton to Caps rookie Tom Wilson.
And he points to Thornton’s rookie season in Boston as an example.
“Boston treated him great, a little bit like what we’re doing with Willie,” Oates said after today’s morning skate. “They had him around because they felt he belonged in the NHL, which I agreed with.
“They gave him sporadic minutes at times and more when they could and let him ease into the league. I think he’s a real good example. Excellent.”
As an 18-year-old rookie with the Bruins in 1997-98, Thornton played in 55 games and averaged 8:05 in ice time. He finished that season with three goals, four assists, 19 penalty minutes and a minus-6 rating.
Through his first 45 games in the NHL, Wilson, 19, is averaging 7 minutes a game and has one goal, three assists and a team-high 92 penalty minutes and is even in plus-minus rating.
Because of the production of right wingers Alex Ovechkin [32 goals], Joel Ward [13 goals] and Troy Brouwer [nine goals], Wilson has spent the entire season playing on the Capitals’ fourth line, most recently with center Jay Beagle and left wing Aaron Volpatti.
“Obviously, we want to get him more minutes,” Oates said. “We’ve got a logjam at that position, so it’s not that easy.
“But if you look at what he’s done for us, he’s been huge,” Oates said of the 6-foot-4, 210-pound right wing. “He’s a tough man, He hits hard.
“He’s got a reputation around the league already. They know he’s out there on the ice. We expect that line to forecheck for us and create opportunities and there will be a day he gets more minutes. Just not yet.”
It’s worth noting that Thornton’s second season in Boston was a breakout year. In 81 games the 6-foot-4, 220-pound center averaged 15:20 in ice time and finished with 16 goals, 25 assists, 69 penalty minutes and a plus-3 rating.
Now 34, Thornton enters tonight’s game with Hall of Fame numbers: 336 goals and 832 assists for 1,168 points in 1,172 games. His next penalty will put him over the 1,000 mark.
“Real good player,” Oates said. “Love him. Great player. Big physical guy. Shows up every night. Very durable. Very strong on the puck.”
While Wilson has yet to find his offensive groove, he’s made his presence felt with 100 hits, third on the team behind Brouwer  and Ovechkin . Wilson’s last big hit landed him in the penalty box for charging on Sunday against the Sabres.
Oates said he thought it was a “borderline” penalty that might have been the result of Wilson’s size and the reaction from the Buffalo bench.
“Unfortunately for some guys who hit hard, the hits are violent,” Oates said. “If the referee’s not totally focused on the play, it looks worse than it is. I want him to be physical and I want him to hit hard, but I also don’t want him to take himself out of the play after the hit.”
Volpatti said the entire fourth line needs to make the most of its ice time, and that includes scoring goals. Volpatti leads the line with two goals. Beagle is still looking for his first.
“We’re a physical line,” Volpatti said. “We’re creating a little more chances. I think once one goes in for us it’ll be a confidence boost and we’ll build off that. It’s a good thing when a fourth line can contribute.”
Volpatti pointed out that every player in the NHL has been a top player on his team at some point in his career. Wilson scored 23 goals last season with the Plymouth Whalers. Volpatti netted 17 goals in his final year at Brown. And Beagle scored 19 goals in his rookie season in Hershey.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how good fourth-line guys are,” Volpatti said. “A lot of fourth-line guys put up big numbers in junior. Maybe you can hit and scrap a little bit, but a guy like Tom, it’s all there. It’s a little bit of a confidence thing and we’re getting some of those chances.”