Someday soon Capitals rookie Tom Wilson might play a different role for his team.
Maybe Wilson will find the scoring touch that made him such an intriguing prospect entering the 2012 NHL draft. Maybe top-six minutes aren’t too far in his future.
But for now his role is intentionally simple: Play right wing on the fourth line for somewhere between five and 10 minutes a night, generate energy when necessary, lay out an opponent when needed. Fight. Learn the game, at age 19, while playing at the highest level. There’s not an easy thing about it.
Suddenly, playing junior hockey for the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League seems like a long time ago. Wilson is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds — “a 19-year-old kid in a 40-year-old man’s body,” said teammate Joel Ward — and the competition in the OHL was no match for him. He scored 32 goals and had 75 points in 60 games last season, including the playoffs. The leap he’s making to the NHL is massive.
“I was still in junior when I was 19 so I don’t really have any reference of what [Wilson] is going through,” Caps winger Troy Brouwer said. “It’s tough to be playing in the NHL against guys 15, 20 years older than you, getting a big paycheck and handling it like an adult. I think he’s doing a great job.
“I know he wants to be in more of a scoring role, but he’s adjusted and hopefully he’s gonna be one of those guys who in a year or two we’re looking at to score goals, not be the guy that fights and hits guys all night.”
But until he proves he can handle those heavier minutes, this is what Washington expects from Wilson. He has had limited offensive production, just a goal and three assists on the season, and 78 penalty minutes. Wilson has taken eight majors, including one for charging on Philadelphia Flyers center Brayden Schenn on Tuesday, and nine minors. Only four NHL players have more penalty minutes. He’s been in seven fights.
That means learning to live with mistakes. Wilson has yet to be scratched this season and also avoided a suspension on Thursday for the Schenn penalty. Caps coach Adam Oates, general manager George McPhee and multiple teammates all defended Wilson’s charge on Schenn — only Brouwer hedged at all and called it “a tough play” — and the NHL and Brendan Shanahan, the senior vice president of player safety, agreed.
Wilson, who was not allowed to speak with reporters after Thursday morning’s practice, had a telephone hearing with Shanahan at noon. The league determined that the on-ice penalties were enough because Wilson eventually stopped skating as he came off the bench and entered the offensive zone prior to engaging Schenn late in the second period of a tie game. The penalties led directly to two Flyers goals, however, and cost Washington in a 5-2 loss.
Oates insisted that Wilson didn’t leave his feet to hit the turning Schenn, didn’t hit him directly in the back and that the contact was shoulder-to-shoulder and elbow-to-elbow.
Given Wilson’s physical style of play, he still must navigate where that line is drawn by the NHL. But he also can’t change his game while learning the finer points of it. That combination of power and scoring ability is what made him the No. 16 overall pick in 2012 and had him soaring up the prospect charts after his OHL success last season.
“To me it’s one of [Wilson’s] strengths as a player, his ability to skate and hit someone,” Oates said. “Not every guy can skate and hit. Some guys have to slow down to hit. He can hit through guys.”
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Another player who can do the same, according to Oates? Teammate Alex Ovechkin, who also sometimes struggles to toe the line between what is and is not permitted. He has been suspended three times during his career.
Wilson, of course, has nowhere near the offensive upside of an Ovechkin, who at age 28 is just one goal shy of 400. But if Wilson is to become the legitimate top-six forward the Caps hope, he must do a similar recalibration.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve got to grow up in a real big hurry,” Brouwer said. “I don’t know if I was mature enough to do it at 19. But he’s handling himself real well.”