If skill was the only issue involved, Tom Wilson could well have a spot on the Capitals' roster secured already. Only 19, he's used the preseason to show he's comfortable and capable at the NHL level.
"He's playing well. He's improving. He's a sponge in terms of learning," Caps coach Adam Oates said Friday night after Wilson scored his second goal of the preseason (and engaged Chicago's Kyle Beach in a fight) in a 5-4 shootout loss to Chicago at Verizon Center.
But it isn't simple as it sounds. Sometime over the next 10 days, before they open their season against the Blackhawks in Chicago, the Caps have some things to figure out in regard to Wilson.
Do they keep him on the roster? If so, who among the projected regulars goes to make room? There are salary cap issues involved, just to complicate things a bit.
If they don't keep him on the NHL roster, Wilson will have to go back to juniors. Because of age rules, he can't go to the Caps' top farm team in Hershey, Pa. Can Wilson continue to develop in another season at the junior level? Can he continue to develop with the Caps, even if he's playing a limited role?
"That's the tough part," said the Caps' Eric Fehr, who got his first preseason goal Friday night as he makes his own transition to center.
"If you're not going to get good minutes, where are you better off? I'm glad that's not my decision to make. It's up to the coaching staff, but he's done a good job and put himself in position to make it a tough decision for them. He's played really well, shown that he can handle the physical play in this league. He's young but he's proven to everybody he can handle himself. He's trying his best to earn a spot."
Oates doesn't foresee a decision being made much before the opener. The Caps have four preseason games left. The roster changes considerably for most of them. Wilson figures to be a constant as the Caps continue to search for the best answer.
"It's a very difficult position, because we don't want to set him back," Oates said. "At the same time, he's one of those rare guys where he's maybe ahead of the curve for his age."
Wilson's goal is simple: make the decision a difficult one. So he can put a check mark in that box.
"There's no perfect formula," said Wilson, who understands all the machinations involved. "There's tough decisions along the way. It's all about what is going to make the team better.
"I have to prove to them I'm worthy of staying up and being around every day. It's not my call. I just want to come in, be a humble kid, stay humble, work hard, do the blue-collar stuff and hope to stay around as long as possible."
Wilson made his NHL debut in the playoffs last season, appearing in three games before the Caps were eliminated in the opening round by the Rangers. With that experience and preseason, he's gained the confidence he needs to believe he belongs. He also thinks he can learn by being around, even if his role isn't significant.
"Even in practice, you're learning a lot," he said. "These guys are all professionals. This is their job. They teach me every day. I'm learning as much as I can every day. [The Ontario Hockey League] is a great league. I can learn a lot there. I definitely can earn a little more up here because it is the highest level of hockey possible."
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