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The Washington Capitals and top prospect Tom Wilson face a dilemma.
At 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds, Wilson appears physically ready for the NHL at just age 19. But if it's apparent during training camp in September that his game still needs seasoning, then Wilson must get it in the Ontario Hockey League, where the best teenage players in North America ply their trade.
There is no in between for a player who won't turn 20 until March 29. An age-limit agreement between the NHL and the Canadian junior leagues will keep Wilson out of the American Hockey League next season so he can't play for Hershey, Washington's top minor league affiliate. It is either stay with the Capitals or return to Plymouth, the Michigan-based junior team where he dominated the competition this past year with 32 goals and 43 assists in 60 games, including the playoffs.
"It's all about setting goals, and if you miss them you just try again," Wilson said. "You go back down to Plymouth and you work hard and you'll get another shot at it."
But the opportunity will be there during training camp, according to Washington general manager George McPhee, whose staff selected Wilson with the 16th overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft. The Capitals lost veteran center Mike Ribeiro and left wing Matt Hendricks to free agency and have yet to add an outside player. Only restricted free agent Marcus Johansson remains unsigned.
Wilson's position at right wing is crowded with Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward. But players can be shifted around if Wilson proves he belongs.
"But you can't hope for one thing or another because then you prejudice your viewpoint," McPhee said. "Just watch him and decide — is this guy ready or not? Is this going to be good for him or not?"
Wilson was in Plymouth through April 26 before his team lost to the London Knights in the OHL playoffs. Then he went right to Hershey, where he appeared in three Calder Cup playoff games before the Bears lost to Providence in five games. Next was his NHL debut May 10 for Washington in Game 5 of a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Rangers.
Wilson played in the Capitals' final three games of the season. It was a busy, exhausting campaign.
And so Wilson returned home to his native Toronto for a few weeks of rest before recently heading back into the gym for daily workouts. As a younger player at every level in his career so far, Wilson is used to setting ambitious goals.
He was determined to make Team Ontario for the 2011 under-17 World Hockey Challenge and did it. His next task was to get drafted in the first round. A breakthrough year at age 17 in Plymouth (16 goals, 24 assists in 62 games, including playoffs) made that one come true, too. But is Wilson ready yet for this final step?
"[Wilson is] very effective as a power forward. There's no secret," said defenseman Connor Carrick, a Plymouth teammate last season and a fellow 2012 Capitals draft pick who is also at development camp this week. "The OHL in general is a bigger, meatier league. It just is. So he is a force. He is big. But a lot of teams have those guys."
And there lies the rub. Wilson is a physical presence. But it took just a few days at Washington's main training camp in January to realize that advantage, for now, is significantly negated against NHL players and that his skating could use work, too. Wilson is far from a finished product.
"[The NHL] is a man's league, it really is," Carrick said. "These guys are strong. These guys are fast. These guys are tough. Tom came back [to Plymouth] after main camp and was like, 'Those are some big boys.' And if Tom is saying they're big boys? They're big boys."
Better nutrition, a natural growth spurt and a more focused strength-training regimen allowed Wilson to add 8 pounds of muscle while keeping his body fat at 7 percent, according to McPhee. The Capitals believe by the time he is 24 Wilson will play between 225 and 230 pounds, but at 2 inches taller even than Ovechkin.
That is the future, though. The decision two months from now is if Wilson is ready to go or if he falls victim to the age limit.
"There's the quid pro quo. [The junior leagues] get the two years until they're 20, but we can take them if they're ready," McPhee said. "Could you say first-round picks should have the flexibility to go to Hershey? Maybe. But everything's working pretty well as it is. Every once in awhile you just have one of these guys that's sort of in between."
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