Following the Capitals’ loss in Minnesota, Coach Adam Oates stopped Tom Wilson in the hallway and told the youngest forward on the team that the decision to bench him wasn’t anything personal.
When Washington took a rash of penalties and suddenly fell behind in the contest, Oates leaned on the veterans in the lineup, leaving Wilson with only 3 minutes and 46 seconds of ice time against the Wild — the second lowest amount he’s received in 42 games this season.
“I didn’t like the score and I wanted to see how three lines are playing,” Oates said. “It’s tough, it’s tough on him for sure but all of a sudden in the second period we got four penalties so [Alex Ovechkin] sat, didn’t get to play and then we’ve got to catch up. I went to the guys that have produced for us to catch up.”
Wilson, 19, has played in every game this season but has skated double digits in ice time just five times and never more than the 11:36 he received back on Oct. 24 at Edmonton. Of all rookie skaters that have played at least 35 games this year, Wilson averages the lowest ice time at 7:02 per contest.
The Capitals kept Wilson, a junior eligible rookie and the 16th overall pick from the 2012 draft, on the roster this year because they believed he would be better served in the NHL this season even with limited ice time than in the Ontario Hockey League, which he had outgrown. But as Washington passes the midway point of the season it’s difficult not to wonder how Wilson’s minimal ice time and role will impact his development in the long run.
Barring an injury to one of the more experienced right wings on the depth chart, a list that includes Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr, who is currently playing on the left side, Wilson will remain entrenched on the fourth unit with the handful of minutes that exist for that line on any given night. That Washington isn’t often in control of a contest late, as evidenced by 16 games that have stretched beyond regulation, also provides fewer chances to give Wilson more time whether at even strength or on the power play. But even when the Capitals are in an advantageous position, Oates acknowledged there are other veterans who would still garner more time before Wilson.
“It’s the depth chart because if I wanted a couple more minutes [for someone] I’d probably give Fehrsie a couple more minutes,” Oates said. “Even though, yeah, there are games where you want to throw your fourth line out for an extra shift but we haven’t been in that position.”
Wilson understands the realities of his current role and is trying to make the most of what scant playing time he receives, while staying ready just in case Oates does give him greater responsibility.
“It’s tough when you sit for that long. It’s not just your legs, it’s your hands, mentally it’s hard to stay in the game when you’re watching like that,” Wilson said. “I just try to prepare myself in practice. Practices this week have been hard and I’m working out after the games, trying to stay in really good shape so if I do get more minutes I’m ready for it.”
General Manager George McPhee has said multiple times that he envisions Wilson evolving into a top-six power forward, complete with an bruising physical presence and nose for the net. While there’s been no shortage of examples of Wilson’s brawn and willingness to stand up for his teammates — he leads the Capitals and is ranked second among NHL rookies with 85 penalty minutes — there’s been few offensive opportunities for him because of the limited playing time.
Wilson, who recorded 23 goals and 58 points last year in his final regular season in the OHL with the Plymouth Whalers, has just one goal and three assists this year.
“I’m just waiting my turn and I’ll be ready if I do get the opportunity for more minutes,” Wilson said, adding that he’s trying to make the most of what few offensive chances he does get.
“When we [on the fourth line] get out there if we get an opportunity we have to make the most of it because guys like Ovi they’ll get nine good, Grade-A [chances] a game,” Wilson said. “They have chances to score every time they’re out there. For our line, I was talking to [Jay Beagle] about getting more pucks to the net because if we have a chance to score we’ve got to make the most of it — we might not get another one the rest of the game.”