Tom Wilson can’t recall exactly how old he was when he was first introduced to body checking in practice. What he does remember, though, is how much he enjoyed it instantly.
“I loved it. One guy would stand in the middle of the circle and then there would be 10 guys around the outside of the circle,” Wilson said. “Then everyone would take a run at him and you’d go around the circle and you’d defend yourself. I can remember it vividly, so I must have liked it. Ever since then, I’m just a competitive kid, I like to work hard and finish my checks and make an influence that way for sure.”
The hard-nosed, physical approach has become Wilson’s trademark as he’s made his way through developmental leagues. It helped him not look out of place last spring when he made his NHL debut, appearing in three playoff games against the New York Rangers. And it could be what helps him crack the Capitals’ roster this fall.
Wilson, 19, has made quite the ascent since being selected in the first round of the 2012 draft. He recorded 32 goals and 43 assists in 60 games (regular season and playoffs) for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers last year before making three-game appearances with both the AHL’s Hershey Bears and Capitals.
While he was limited to a fourth-line role during his brief stint in Washington, averaging only 6:53 per game in ice time, it was an encouraging showing for the Toronto native. Wilson didn’t shy away from physical play against opponents several years his senior and offered a glimpse at the natural toughness he can bring to the Capitals’ lineup.
“He’s always had that edge to him that you’re born with,” said Capitals’ prospect Michael Latta, who recalled facing the rambunctious Wilson while during the 2010-11 season in the OHL. “He was a little 17 year old kid that I was kind of brushing off and now he’s a 19 year old man, who’s big and strong and tough. He’s a player, he does it all. He can skate, he hits hard, he plays hard, he’s got good skills. He’s going to be a long-time pro. I hope one day we can be linemates and go on a long journey together in the NHL.”
The question this summer, and more so come training camp in September, is whether Wilson is ready to make the leap to the NHL full time. At development camp this week, where he clearly stands out against his peers in practice, the Capitals’ brass is looking more at how Wilson carries himself off the ice.
“I don’t know that we’re evaluating him as much on the ice as we are off the ice. Checking out the maturity level, how much they’ve trained,” General Manager George McPhee said. “We know what he can do, we’ve seen it and we just want to measure how it’s come along here. He’s coming along great. He’s in fabulous shape. He’s put on a lot of weight since the end of the season and [his] body fat’s low, so it’s good weight.”
Wilson is listed at 6-4, 215 pounds for development camp, five pounds heavier than he was at the end of last season. While there’s no doubt he can handle himself physically in the NHL, the Capitals hope Wilson will someday develop into a top-six forward and don’t want to rush him.
While he could be a serviceable fourth liner next year, Wilson might be better off with one more season in the OHL rather than seeing limited ice time in Washington. But if he is able to out play some of the Capitals more established players at right wing in camp, Wilson may indeed be here to stay.
“I’ll just work hard every day,” Wilson said, downplaying any concern over where he could play next season. “You just want to stay and work hard the next day and stick around as long as possible, but I think Plymouth is another good option. I’m familiar there too. I’ve been there for three years, it’s a great organization. It’s two good options and we’ll see what happens.”