Joe Thornton (left) is one of the NHL’s top power forwards but also averaged scant minutes in his rookie season back in 1997-98. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Coach Adam Oates has said on numerous occasions that he believes rookie Tom Wilson can and will develop in the NHL despite averaging only 7 minutes a night this season.

One of the most frequent comparisons Oates makes when discussing Wilson is the trajectory of San Jose captain Joe Thornton. The 34-year-old center has come to define the term power forward over his 16-year NHL career, balancing 12 20-goal seasons with underlying grit.

But when taking stock of Thornton’s career now – 1,171 regular season games played, 336 goals, 1,168 points and 999 penalty minutes – it’s easy to forget that he too was seldom used in his rookie season. Back in 1997-98 when Thornton was an 18-year-old rookie with the Boston Bruins, he appeared in 55 games but averaged only 8:05 a night and finished the year with three goals, seven points and a minus-6 rating.

Oates’s time with the Bruins didn’t overlap with Thornton’s – he was traded to the Capitals months before Boston selected Thornton first overall in the 1997 draft – but he greatly respects the forward’s game and sees how receiving early time in the NHL worked in that instance.

“Love the player, love him. Great player, big physical guy, shows up every night, very durable, very strong on the puck, really like him as a player,” Oates said. “Boston treated him great, a little bit like what we’re doing with Willy. Just had him around because they felt he belonged in the NHL, which I agree with and gave him sporadic minutes at times and more when they could, let him ease into the league.”

In his second season, Thornton saw his average ice time jump to 15:21 and then 21:18 in the third. Whether Wilson will see the same increase or have anywhere near the significant offensive results – Thornton recorded 16 goals and 41 points his second year, 23 goals and 60 points his third – certainly remains to be seen. But it’s certainly an interesting parallel to watch unfold given that the Capitals’ long-term hope for Wilson is that he will develop into an imposing, top-six power forward.

Should the Capitals have an opportunity to increase Wilson’s role as the year progresses, Oates sounds like he will take advantage of it.

“Obviously we want to get him more minutes,” Oates said. “It’s not that easy, if you also look at what he’s done for us he’s been huge. He’s a tough man, he hits hard, he’s got a reputation around the league all ready they know he’s out there on the ice. That line, we expect that line to forecheck for us and creates opportunities. There will be a day he gets more minutes, [it] just hasn’t shown up yet.”