Tom Wilson is settling in with the Capitals quite well this preseason. He’s one of the few prospects with a stall in the main dressing room at the team’s practice facility in Arlington. He helps run warmup drills ahead of preseason contests. And he carries himself as a veteran, who has been taking part in training camps for years, not a rookie looking to make the jump to the NHL.
If Coach Adam Oates has his way, Wilson will take that step this season.
“I like what I see in Willy enough that I would like to keep him around us, but obviously that’s going to be George’s call,” Oates said Tuesday night after the Baltimore Hockey Classic. “We’ll talk about it a lot. The one thing we definitely don’t want is to hurt his learning curve, because he looks like he’s going to be a very good hockey player.”
Where Wilson, 19, will play this season is the single biggest question the Capitals face in training camp. He’s not eligible to play in the American Hockey League because of his age agreement between the NHL and Canadian junior leagues, so if Washington opts not to keep him, Wilson must return to playing against his peers in the Ontario Hockey League.
There is every indication that Wilson, listed at a whopping 6-4, 217 pounds, has progressed beyond dominating teenagers as a do-everything forward for the Plymouth Whalers. He can hold his own against NHL players, as he proved in his three-game stint with the Capitals during last year’s playoffs, and has looked confident through two preseason games.
“I think I’ve just got to come in every day and work hard,” Wilson said. “The Caps have a pretty deep lineup and there’s a lot of great players. I’m just trying to learn everything I can and use it any way I can.”
The Capitals are right to weigh the decision carefully, though. While Wilson offers the exciting potential of a budding power forward, someone they project will develop into a top-six winger, there is no prescribed formula for determining whether a prospect is ready for the NHL full time.
“There’s obviously situations where teams regret their decisions and there’s teams that thought they made the right decision,” Oates said. “I remember Joe Thornton in Boston. They kept him the whole year, they barely played him they just kept him under their thumb and made sure good things [happened] and he’s turned into be a fantastic hockey player.”
At the start of training camp, General Manager George McPhee said he would want to make sure there was a significant role for Wilson in Washington, so that the winger can continue his development. Spare-change minutes or sporadic time in and out of the lineup likely isn’t an ideal situation.
“Is six or eight minutes a game going to be enough?” McPhee said. “I’m not sure that that would be the way to go, but some players have done it and grown. That’s part of it.”
In cases such as Wilson, NHL teams are able to give a player a trial of sorts in the regular season. Prospects are able to play nine regular season contests, but appearing in a 10th would burn a year on their entry-level contracts. Asked if that would be a possibility, McPhee didn’t sound inclined to let the decision process drag on into October.
“I’m not sure we’d want to do that. I’d like to pick the team,” McPhee said. “It’s an artificial deadline, but we’ll see. We should know over the next three or four weeks.”
Should the Capitals opt to bring Wilson aboard this year, they will need to shed salary. Wilson carries a salary cap hit of $1,294,167, a figure that includes up to $200,000 he’s eligible to earn in performance bonuses, according to Capgeek.
That’s nearly double the available space Washington has under the $64.3 million salary cap. While McPhee would have several options at his disposal to make up that room, it’s possible he could opt to thin the group of forwards, seeing as 14 players appear to have claims on an NHL roster spot.
Regardless of what it would entail to keep Wilson in Washington, this is an opportunity for the Capitals to address a team need. Wilson’s blend of skill and sandpaper is something no NHL team can have enough of. Oates believes that injection of grit would be an important, necessary asset for the Capitals, even if Wilson is still learning on the fly.
“We need what he brings. We’ve got some smaller guys in certain positions and he’s a big, strong guy. That will always help,” Oates said. “Every team wants a power forward. Every team. He’s skating around out there, you think of Jarome Iginla in Calgary, when I played with Cam Neely — the same type of guy. Willy looks like he has the potential to be that type of guy. Brouw’s that type of player for us. Ovi’s a physical guy. He skates good, he can be physical. Like I said, we don’t want to hurt him, we don’t want to slow him down but those are rare commodities in the league.”