Many of the conversations that Caps general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates have with young players are unpleasant ones. They call kids into their offices and have to tell them why they’ve been cut, sent to the minors, sent back to juniors or released. Those encounters are undoubtedly even tougher on the players, but having to deliver bad news to young hockey players is one of the worst parts of both McPhee and Oates’ respective job descriptions.
On Friday at Kettler, the Caps’ braintrust got a rare chance to deliver some good news to a young hockey player. After the Capitals’ Friday practice at Kettler, McPhee and Oates met with 19-year-old right wing Tom Wilson and told him he’ll be staying in the District for the duration of the 2013-14 season.
“This was an easy decision,” says McPhee. “He’s doing very well. We like him a lot and he is very well liked by his teammates. When you put those three factors together, it was an easy decision. He’s going to be here for a while.”
Wilson was in Oates’ office this morning when McPhee came in.
“I didn’t know what to think,” says Wilson. “I was thinking, ‘Maybe [Oates] just wants to talk,’ and then George came in. I was thinking, ‘This can go one of two ways,’ and luckily it went the good way.”
“My first thought is congratulations to Tom,” says caps forward Brooks Laich. “We’ve all been there on the bubble, hoping to stay, and when you find out that yes, you can get a place and the team tells you ‘You’re with us,’ it’s one of the happiest days of your life. So congratulations to him, he’s earned it. He’s made great strides since he’s been here.”
Wilson will play in his eighth game of the season on Saturday against Columbus at Verizon Center. The Caps could have returned him to his junior team (Plymouth of the OHL) anytime before his 10th game in Washington and would have prevented the first season of his three-year entry level contract from kicking in, had they done so.
Washington is departing for a four-game trip through western Canada on Monday, so the Caps set a deadline of their own to make a decision on Wilson’s fate before departing for Winnipeg on Monday. Wilson was keenly aware of that impending deadline.
“Yeah, it’s always in the back of my head,” he admits. “The league has made a big deal about that nine-game rule. A lot of guys will get sent down right at the end of that. I think any player that comes into the league thinks about it every day and tries to make the most of their first few games.”
As a CHL-drafted player, Wilson is too young to play in the American Hockey League. The Caps’ only options with Wilson were Washington or Plymouth, and they believe he is better off here in the District.
Wilson has a reputation as one of the toughest guys in the OHL, and as such, he likely would have been a frequent target for younger players in that league looking to prove themselves by taking on someone of Wilson’s caliber.
The Caps got a look at that first hand last month during the team’s annual rookie game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Every time Wilson was on the ice, one or more of the young Flyers was taking a run at him.
“He may not have been able to play hockey there,” says McPhee, referring to Plymouth. “He may have been involved in too many distractions. Here, he is playing good hockey and learning the game and absorbing quickly.
“We’re really pleased with the way he is playing the game. He does have a good reputation for being a good, tough kid because he earned it, but he is playing the game the right way at this level.”
“He can go back to junior and score goals and get assists and play 20 minutes,” says Oates, “but he develops a lot of bad habits. They’re not the goals he’d score here, not the assists he’d get here, not the situations or the speed he’d get here. In saying that, we don’t have the perfect formula, no question. But we think he belongs and we want him and his teammates love him. Hopefully, he’ll continue to grow.”
Wilson has played fourth-line minutes in his seven games in Washington to date, averaging just 6:42 a night in ice time. He’s had two fights, but he hasn’t gone out looking for trouble. He has played a straight-up, north-south, North American game and has not been shy about throwing his weight around. Despite sporadic ice time, Wilson is third on the team with 18 hits this season.
“He’s a big guy who goes north and really fits the identity of our team,” says Laich. “He’ll drop the gloves, he’ll play the body every night, and even for a young guy he is going to make smart decisions. And now you’re going to start to see as the year goes on, more confidence with the puck, more plays, a little more patience with the puck and you’ll see this kid take off.”
Washington believes Wilson may have third- or possibly even second-line upside, and McPhee also believes the teenager’s workload will grow as the season wears on.
“He’ll get more minutes,” says McPhee. “We haven’t played well enough yet. The Edmonton game for example, everybody got good ice time in that game. Certain games, he may not. But certainly if one of the guys on the right side that’s ahead of him right now gets banged up or isn’t playing to their capabilities, he’ll move up. That will certainly happen at some point this year. He’ll have those opportunities as well.”
Although he won’t get the minutes in Washington that he would have gotten in Plymouth, Wilson believes his game will grow and evolve here in the District this season, especially if he holds up his end by working hard in practice.
“I think just coming in here every day and being around the guys, practice is huge,” says Wilson. “Being able to go out there and get better every day practicing with the best players in the world. It’s tough in games, you want to get those touches in the games. But I go out there and I’m trying to learn everything I can.
“It was great to have Marty [Erat] with me for the first seven games; he is always talking to me about little things like breakouts and forechecks that make a big difference. There are always guys who are willing to teach you and as long as you keep your eyes and ears open you can learn a lot.”
“We just told him we’ve obviously liked his progression,” says Oates. “There are so many things he brings. It’s a tough decision; we’ve talked about it a lot of times about how we don’t want to hold him back. But he hasn’t acted like a 19-year-old. He acts like he belongs. We want to keep him growing and find minutes [for him] when we can. He’s doing a good job and we don’t want him to think about it.”
Wilson is eligible to play in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, but McPhee says the Caps will decide whether or not Wilson would be permitted to take part in that tournament when the time comes. There are many factors at play in such a decision, including Hockey Canada’s desire to have the player on its roster and Washington’s personnel situation at the time. The tournament starts the day after Christmas and runs through the first week of January.
Normally when you tell a player he’s sticking or the season, you tell him he can move out of his hotel and get a place of his own. With a 19-year-old, the plans are slightly different. As is the case with teens playing junior hockey in the CHL, the Caps have a local billet situation lined up for the young right wing.
“We have a billet situation available here and we need to discuss it with Tom and his parents and go from there,” says McPhee.
“I’ve been with a billet for the past three or four years of my career and it’s a great setup,” says Wilson. “It’s amazing to have those families do what they do and bring players in. It’s a huge deal in junior. Coming in now, I think it’s just about talking to the coaches and seeing what’s best for me and what’s going to bring me to the rink in the best mindset every day.
“It’s always a little bit difficult going in with a family at first. As a 19-year-old kid, I’m starting to become more independent, and wanting to live on my own a little bit. And I’ve lived on my own; I’ve been out of my original home for four years now so I kind of know what it’s like.
“But at the end of the day, when you’re coming home from a long road trip you want to know that there is food in the fridge and that when you get up in the morning there is going to be a meal because they’re cooking for their kids, too. It’s a really nice situation to have and a nice option to have for sure.”
Wilson is generally one of the most upbeat guys in the Caps’ room anyway, but his sitdown with McPhee and Oates on Friday will rank as a memorable moment in the young player’s career.
“You always feel good about that because the player feels good about it,” says McPhee. “You always enjoy those meetings. But at the same time, you always want them to keep their heads screwed on right because there is never one test that you pass that says ‘you’re here.’
“There are lots of occupations where you’re tested every day, and being a pro athlete is one of them. You’ve got to perform every day. You’ve got to pass tests every day, every week, every month for your entire career to stay in the NHL. That’s the message that we deliver, but it’s a nice, healthy conversation.”