In the middle of the second period of Friday night’s game against Vancouver, a play unfolded that showcased the potential the Washington Capitals have seen in Tom Wilson since they drafted him 16th overall in 2012.
The 19-year-old finished a heavy, clean check on Canucks instigator Tom Sestito in the neutral zone and then turned up ice for a rush with his linemates. Wilson accelerated as he drove the net to ensure he had a step on Sestito. And when Evgeny Kuznetsov put a forceful slap pass on Wilson’s tape, the right wing snapped a shot into the upper right-hand corner past the outstretched glove of Canucks goaltender Eddie Lack.
What began with a demonstration in Wilson’s brawn concluded with a reminder of his skill level. But throughout his rookie season, the Capitals haven’t often put Wilson in position to combine both elements.
Wilson’s role throughout 68 games has almost exclusively been that of a fourth-line grinder, averaging only 7 minutes 23 seconds of ice time, which Coach Adam Oates attributes to Washington’s depth at right wing. No matter how high the organization’s hopes are for his future, Wilson remains slotted behind Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward.
“I think Willy’s done great. I wish we could find more minutes, but I’m also guarded and cautious in letting him grow slow,” Oates said. “It’s hard right now. I think we’re doing it right in terms of how we play him.”
The Capitals chose to keep the 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior-eligible winger in the NHL this season rather than send him back to the Ontario Hockey League, where he had outgrown the competition.
But usually when teams make that decision, it is to add an impact player, not fourth-line depth. Wilson has skated only 503 minutes, by far the fewest of the nine teenage NHL rookies who have played at least 50 games this season. Florida’s Aleksander Barkov has the next-lowest amount of total ice time in that group at 923 minutes.
Wilson has recorded just three goals and nine points in his limited playing time and has spent more of the year illustrating his grit. There’s never been a doubt that the Toronto native is a tough customer: He ranks fourth in the NHL with 133 penalty minutes and is tied for second in major penalties (13), including 12 fights. But as the season has progressed, Wilson wants to work toward making a greater impact on the Capitals.
“I don’t know how many fights I have this year, but I’ve done that enough. I want to work on my game and keep learning the other stuff,” Wilson said. “The fighting will always be there — there’s always going to be someone that wants to fight you. But you can really contribute to the team more if you have that fighting and can contribute offensively and be good in your D-zone and in the neutral zone.”
Against the Canucks, Wilson kept that element of his game under control. When Sestito, a known pest who leads the league with 186 penalty minutes, sought him out for a fight after Washington established a lead, Wilson declined the invitation. Sestito persisted, challenging the rookie off faceoffs and with physical confrontations, but rather than take the bait, Wilson drew a hooking penalty that led to a power-play goal for Ovechkin.
Wilson wants to offer those types of contributions while helping to fuel a momentum-building forecheck even if it’s as a member of the fourth line. The ability of any unit to dominate possession is critical for the Capitals.
“If I’m fighting, it’s going to be on my own terms now. I’ve spoken to Oatesy and [assistant coach Blaine Forsythe] a little bit about that,” Wilson said. “It’s important that if our line is outnumbering them in their zone and playing better than their fourth line, we need that right now. That needs to be the case down the stretch, four lines going, and if we can dominate that fourth line, that’s huge for our team.”
Friday’s 4-3 victory over the Canucks was one of the few games this season in which Wilson played alongside highly skilled players — he has taken the majority of his shifts this year with Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti. Wilson didn’t look out of place alongside fellow rookie Kuznetsov or Nicklas Backstrom when Oates put the top center with the youngsters late in the game.
That doesn’t come as a surprise to Wilson’s teammates, who believe that with more opportunity he will continue to evolve into a well-rounded player.
“He’s a lot better than just a fighter,” Eric Fehr said. “He has a lot of skill, and you can see it in the goal he scored last night, the way he handled that pass and got [the shot] off. There’s not a lot of players that can do that. He’s definitely skilled, and I think the more that he develops, the more he’ll turn into a player that’s playmaker-scorer first and fighter when you have to.”