Tom Wilson’s welcome to Washington Capitals training camp moment came Sunday when he was doing a two-on-one drill and saw Alex Ovechkin on the other side.
“I was like, ‘Oh man. Better not miss him with a pass or anything.’ I just had to dial it in,” Wilson said. “I grew up watching them all on TV. Joey Crabb was in Toronto. I was watching him. So it’s cool to sit beside him on the bench and now that I’m out there on the ice with him.”
Wilson is on the ice this week with all his heroes, from Ovechkin to Crabb and everyone in between. It’s a bright lights, big league experience for the 18-year-old, but he’s also an injury or two away from being on the opening night roster.
Originally, general manager George McPhee didn’t want to bring Wilson to camp, figuring he wanted a smaller group this week. He changed his mind.
“Our director of player development, Steve Richmond, insisted that this should be at the camp. That he believes he’s got a chance to make the team and so that’s his job, to make those decisions for us,” McPhee said. “So we listened and we said OK. So if he can make the team, good for him. If he can’t, it’s a terrific orientation and it’ll make him a better player.”
Getting the call from McPhee earlier this week was a welcome piece of good news for the 18-year-old who got cut from Team Canada’s world junior camp last month.
“Obviously, it was really tough. I was kind of expecting to be there. I had heard I might be there, so when I got the call it was a pretty emotional day for me,” Wilson said. “I was pretty sad. I got right back into it in Plymouth and worked hard.”
The No. 16 overall pick of the Caps in June has been doing more than just working hard while playing for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. Wilson has 13 goals and 23 assists in 31 games.
Wilson has also cut down on his penalty minutes. That’s because his focus has been elsewhere.
“I talked to the Caps a little bit and back at junior, they wanted me to focus on developing my offensive game. I mean I’m still playing hard and I’m still getting penalty minutes. They’re just not through the roof like last year,” Wilson said. “So I’m just working on my offensive game down at Plymouth. I mean if I have to stick up for my teammates, I will. But I’m just worrying about putting the puck in the net right now.”
Without any exhibition games to score or make good use of his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame, Wilson must use scrimmages and practices this week to make his case for a roster spot.
On Day One of camp, Wilson already made an impression on coach Adam Oates, who last saw him at development camp in July.
“You know what, it’s funny, he looked like he’s older already to me. Maybe it’s because he’s with the other guys. But it looks like he’s mature,” Oates said. “He looked quite comfortable out there. I was very impressed.”
With Brooks Laich likely to miss at least the start of the season with an apparent groin injury, the Caps have 14 forwards on the ice at camp. It’s fair to say it’s a long shot that Wilson is in the lineup Saturday night at the Tampa Bay Lightning, but health could change that – and stranger things have happened.
“You watch and then the players make the decisions for you,” McPhee said. “We have a pretty good idea who’s going to be on this club, but you never know.”
Wilson can play up to five NHL games without the Caps burning the first year of his entry-level contract. That buys him and the team some time, but if he’s good enough to outlast that limit, it would probably be for good reason.
“I’m going to come up here and show them my stuff and what I can and obviously they know best,” Wilson said. “They’re great hockey sources and great hockey minds, so they’re gonna know what’s best for me.”