Tom Wilson was lining up for a two-on-one drill during the first practice of Washington Capitals training camp Sunday when he experienced his first wide-eyed moment. Across the ice was star Alex Ovechkin and Wilson, just 18 years old, couldn’t help but feel a little starstruck.
“I was like: ‘Oh man. Better not miss him with a pass or anything.’ I just had to dial it in,” Wilson said. “I grew up watching them all on TV.”
Wilson, who was selected by Washington with the No. 16 pick in the 2012 NHL draft, was a surprise inclusion to the Capitals training camp roster after General Manager George McPhee told reporters earlier this week that he didn’t plan to bring any junior players with so little time before the team’s season opener Saturday.
But McPhee changed his mind once director of player development Steve Richmond told him that Wilson deserved to attend.
“He said: ‘He’s playing very, very well. 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.’ And I agreed,” McPhee said.
Wilson’s first day of training camp was spent as an extra player on Washington’s third line alongside wings Jason Chimera and Joel Ward and center Jay Beagle. He had been playing for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. Through 31 games this season, he has recorded 13 goals and 36 points.
McPhee drafted Wilson in hopes of adding some edge to Washington’s lineup in the future, but he wanted the gritty winger to develop his offensive game rather than rush him to the NHL. Wilson appears to have taken that suggestion to heart, cutting his penalty minutes down from 141 last year to 59 this season.
“I’m still playing hard and I’m still getting penalty minutes. They’re just not through the roof like last year,” Wilson said. “So I’m just working on my offensive game down at Plymouth. I mean if I have to stick up for my teammates, I will. But I’m just worrying about putting the puck in the net right now.”
If Wilson were to play more than five games with the Capitals this season, it would count as the first year of his entry-level contract.
Both McPhee and Coach Adam Oates are excited about his progress since participating in Washington’s developmental camp this past summer, even though Wilson was one of the last cuts on Canada’s World Junior team last month.
“It’s funny — he looked like he’s older already to me,” Oates said of Wilson. “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.”
Chimera and Beagle both noted that Wilson didn’t seem like a nervous rookie on his first day in the NHL, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t learning experiences.
“The biggest thing is how the defensemen move the puck. I mean you’re not expecting it and the next thing you know it’s right on your tape,” Wilson said. “I mean 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, so you’ve got to be ready to go and you’ve got to be doing everything top notch.”