Highlights: Capitals 6, Flyers 3
At the end of last season, after seeing him play sparingly in three playoff games, the Capitals said Tom Wilson would have to earn his way onto the 2013-14 roster.
After an impressive development camp in July and a dominant rookie camp in September, the Caps said Wilson would have to show them something more in his first NHL preseason.
Well, through five preseason games, the 19-year-old rookie from Toronto has scored three goals, has won two fights and has pretty much dared the Caps to keep him of their roster.
“He’s a big physical guy [6-foot-4, 217 pounds], skated well, played a lot of minutes,” Caps coach Adam Oates said after Friday night’s 6-3 win over the Flyers, their seventh of eight exhibition games. “He didn’t look out of place.”
All along, that’s what the Caps have been waiting for – for Wilson to look like he’s a step too slow for the NHL; for him to find himself out of position when the pace picked up; for him to prove that going back to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League is the best thing for his development.
And it hasn’t happened.
“You really have to be careful because it’s training camp,” Oates said. “If he has a tough night you can’t look at that and say, ‘Oh, now what do we do?’ Nobody plays perfect every shift. It’s hard because sometimes you get emotionally attached.”
It’s fair to say Oates is emotionally attached to Wilson. He sees that big body and a willingness to learn – he’s called him a sponge on more than one occasion – and he sees a player who can be a force against physical conference rivals like the Bruins and Flyers.
But Oates also knows the decision on Wilson must be made with clear heads, not bleeding hearts.
“It’s the 24-hour rule,” Oates said. “You try to take a step back re-evaluate and control all your emotions with these decisions.”
If the Caps send Wilson back to juniors, they won’t see him again until the Whalers finish their season in April. If they keep him, he must stay on their NHL roster all season.
“You don’t want to force that decision,” Oates said. “You want to do the right thing at the right time and you’re always checking that.”
Wilson seems to understand this as well as anyone.
“I think they’re both good situations,” he said. “I’ve been in Plymouth for the last three years. If I went back there I’d be very comfortable and continue to develop. There’s no question the OHL is a great league, but here I have to focus a little more, I have to be tuned in and I have to work really hard to keep up with all these guys here.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve learned everything I could down low but it’s more comfortable for sure and I could learn a lot more up here. It’s no question this is the best league in the world and there are so many talented guys in this room I can learn from.”
The Caps have one more preseason game tonight in Chicago before it’s roster decision time. If Wilson stays, the Caps likely will need to make room for him by reducing their roster to 22 players, one under the limit. It could mean a trip to the waiver wire for Aaron Volpatti or a trade involving Mathieu Perreault.
In other words, there’s no simple solution.
Wilson said he’s happy that’s a decision for others to make. In the meantime, he’s soaking up his “living the dream” experience.
“It’s so much fun being up here in this locker room and in front of the great fans out there,” he said Friday night. “It’s awesome any tme you get to put this uniform on. I’m just learning everything I can every game I get to jump into.
“The way I look at it, every day you stick around is good news. I’m just trying to work hard, living day by day and hope I stay as long as possible.”