Capitals general manager George McPhee had no intention of bringing a junior prospect to an NHL training camp this week.
Given the 113-day lockout and the compressed schedule, there just wasn’t time or space to fit such a young player onto the roster. Chances were the player would have little shot to make the team anyway. But Steve Richmond, Washington’s director of player development, argued otherwise. So, for a few days at least, 2012 first-round draft pick Tom Wilson has left his junior team, the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers, for a stint with the Caps.
“[Richmond] said he’s playing very, very well,” McPhee said. “He has a chance to make our team. So you got to bring him. If that doesn’t happen it’s still a good orientation for him.”
Wilson, 18, can appear in as many as five NHL games and still be returned to Plymouth to finish the season. If he plays a sixth then he can’t. That’s probably not the best developmental route for such a young player. But there’s little harm in giving him a chance to show that he can stick. And at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Wilson is far more physically mature than most prospects his age.
“It’s funny – he looked like he’s older already to me,” said Washington coach Adam Oates, who first saw Wilson at July’s rookie development camp. “Maybe it’s because he’s with the other guys. But it looks like he’s mature. He looked quite comfortable out there. I was very impressed.”
Wilson has 13 goals and 23 assists already for Plymouth through 31 games. Last year in 49 games he had nine goals and 18 assists. His penalty minutes are also no longer “through the roof” as Wilson put it, compared to last year when he had 141 penalty minutes. He’s not exactly a choir boy on the ice this year, either, but with coaches in Plymouth and Washington wanting him to focus on his offensive game they have at least dropped to 59.
It’s been a whirlwind few months for Wilson, who was drafted by the Caps in June, No. 16 overall. He was also part of Team Canada’s training camp for the prestigious World Juniors tournament that finished earlier this month. But Wilson was expecting to make the team and he called getting cut on the final day and missing that event “a pretty emotional day for me.”
Now, he’s sitting in a corner locker stall next to some of the best players in the world. During Sunday’s first training-camp practice Wilson looked across the ice and saw star winger Alex Ovechkin ready to skate with him in a 2-on-1 drill. He took a deep breath and “dialed it in.”
Those butterflies quickly settled, but Wilson’s chances are still daunting and he has little time – seven practices, at most, with two of them already in the books – to make an impact. It didn’t help that the Caps signed established winger Eric Fehr on Saturday. That makes 15 forwards.
It’s likely that winger Brooks Laich (groin) won’t be ready for the start of the season after he missed his second practice in a row on Monday. That would leave a spot for Wilson if the team decided to keep 14 forwards and seven defensemen instead of 13 forwards and eight defensemen. Either way, neither the team nor Wilson will have considered his inclusion a waste of time. He’s learning lessons every moment he’s at the NHL level.
“For me, the biggest thing is how the defensemen move the puck. You’re not expecting it and the next thing you know it’s right on your tape,” Wilson said. “You turn around, the gaps are right up on you. There’s no time. It’s like everything is really, really fast and they make their minds up so quickly. You’ve got to be ready to go and you’ve got to be doing everything top notch.”
Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14