When it comes to determining whether a junior-eligible player is ready for the full-time jump to the NHL there is, as Capitals Coach Adam Oates often says, no perfect formula. There are pros and cons to both developmental paths, leaving plenty of room for debate with each particular prospect.
On Friday the Capitals informed rookie right wing Tom Wilson, 19, that he’d be staying in the NHL past the 10-game mark, a threshold that means this season will count against his entry-level contract. But only time will tell whether keeping Wilson in the NHL with a limited role this year will help him develop into the imposing, top-six power forward the Capitals hope he’ll become.
“I like to think I’m learning every day I come in here,” said Wilson, who because of an age agreement between the NHL and Canadian Hockey League can only play in either of those two leagues this season. “I’ve learned how to play at the junior level, I’ve spent three years there. I know where the goalies are, how long it takes for them to come across and stuff like that. Now I’m learning those details at this level.”
General Manager George McPhee declined to comment about the organization’s decision with Wilson. But based off Oates’s assessment, the team believes Wilson will make more significant long-term progress working alongside established players at the full speed and demands of NHL level, regardless of the ice time he receives in the earliest stages of his professional career.
The Capitals were also leery of Wilson possibly developing bad habits in a league he had outgrown if they sent him back to the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers, where as an established commodity he could also face unnecessary challenges from other junior players looking to make their mark.
“It’s a tough decision. We’ve talked about it a lot of times, about how we don’t want to hold him back,” Oates said. “But we think he hasn’t acted like a 19-year-old. He acts like he belongs.”
There’s no doubt that the 6-foot-4, 217-pound Wilson blends into an NHL dressing room easily from a physical standpoint and his veteran teammates appreciate his humble approach to his sudden emergence on the scene.
“He handles it great for a young kid,” said Martin Erat, who served as Wilson’s linemate for the first seven games. “It’s easier for him when it’s just a game, just a play. Sometimes you’re going to have bad shifts, sometimes you’re going to have a bad play, it’s the way it goes and he seems to understand that. I’m very impressed by him.”
Still, it’s a rather uncommon move for the Capitals. During McPhee’s 16-year tenure, the team featured junior-eligible rookies on the opening night roster only twice, in 2001 with center Brian Sutherby and in 2002 with defenseman Steve Eminger. Of those two instances, only Eminger remained with Washington for a prolonged length of time.
Eminger, the 12th overall pick in 2002, appeared in 17 games that season, averaging about 10 minutes per game, but was ultimately returned to the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers mid-season after he played in the world junior tournament that year. Sutherby, the 26th overall pick in 2000, played seven games in 2001, averaging about seven minutes on the ice before he was sent back to the Moose Jaw Warriors.
While the NHL is trending younger, with more teenagers making an impact than may have done so in the past, each such decision comes with a different set of circumstances.
This season alone, junior-eligible players’ circumstances vary widely across the league. Seth Jones is staying with Nashville, which needed a boost to its top four defensemen, and is already averaging more than 23 minutes per night. First overall pick Nathan MacKinnon earned a place in Colorado as the third-line center and is seeing power-play time. The Calgary Flames, meanwhile, are weighing whether Sean Monahan (four goals, two assists in six games) would be better served on a lottery team or with another year in juniors. Tampa Bay opted to send third overall pick Jonathan Drouin back to the Halifax Mooseheads rather than have him play limited minutes, likely as a fourth liner, in the NHL.
“The way we’re set up up front he’s not going to get the minutes we want him to play, so it’s best he goes back to junior,” Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman told reporters in Tampa this month. “We think he’s an incredible talent, a very intelligent hockey player, great hockey sense, great vision. We just feel he’s better served by playing another year of junior hockey. I don’t want him being in and out of the lineup. I don’t want him playing limited minutes.”
Washington’s abundance of right wings means, barring injury, that Wilson won’t see significant ice time or consistent special teams play in the immediate future. Through the first eight games of the season, Wilson has averaged just 6 minutes 57 seconds and 10.3 shifts per game.
Oates has argued that participation in practice, video sessions and general involvement at the NHL level can help Wilson develop in addition to whatever game time the Toronto native sees. The counterpoint, though, is whether limited playing time spent grinding on the fourth line impacts whether Wilson ultimately becomes a top-six power forward.
“There’s a good and bad to everything. The good is he’s up here, he’s getting the experience the bad is he may not be playing as much as he would like to be and the problem with that can sometimes be that his game might change,” Troy Brouwer said before the team informed Wilson he was staying. “We picked him for a guy who can be a good top-six power forward, scoring goals. He’s got that touch. If he spends a couple of years trying to figure his way on the fourth line will he lose some of that ability?”