“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”
-- Benjamin Franklin
Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals had a difficult choice before the start of the 2013-2014 season. Wilson, the 16th overall pick of the 2012 entry draft after two seasons with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, might have played another season with the Whalers, played a season or two with the Hershey Bears in the AHL as his introduction to the pro game, then graduated to the Capitals to start the 2015-2016 season as a 21-year old, physically mature and with maybe 150 games of professional experience in the regular season and playoffs in the AHL to mature his game.
Nice plan, but for a technicality. Wilson was not eligible to play for the Bears in 2013-2014. The NHL and the Canadian Hockey League, which covers all of the major junior leagues in Canada, have an agreement that CHL prospects must remain in junior hockey until they are 20 years of age or have played in four full seasons. Wilson, at 19 years of age, was not eligible to play for the Bears. It was juniors, for his fourth season with the Whalers, or the Caps. There was no third option.
Wilson might have been sent back to juniors, but he was an impressive physical player who scored 23 goals and 58 points in 48 games with the Whalers in 2012-2013. There was little left to prove there, and there might have been players looking to build a reputation and get some attention from scouts by trying to take Wilson down a peg or two. Wilson might have been viewed as too valuable a commodity to be exposed to that. The Caps decided to keep him in Washington, even if it meant playing fourth line minutes.
Fourth line minutes is precisely what Wilson got, playing all 82 games and averaging 7:56 a night. Only three forwards playing in at least 75 games skated fewer total minutes than Wilson (651): Tom Sestito (497 in 77 games), Brian McGrattan (511/76), and Patrick Bordeleau (565/82). None of them were first round draft picks.
Then again, Wilson’s experience might have been rare, but not unique. Joe Thornton, a number one overall pick in 1997, averaged just 8:05 in 55 games in his rookie season with Boston. Daniel Briere, a 24th overall pick in 1996, played 11 minutes a night in his first full season, then played an average of seven minutes a night the next season and ten the following season in the NHL while splitting time between the Phoenix Coyotes and the AHL.
All in all, the 2013-2014 rookie season for Wilson was far more experiential than productive. Even though he was one of only three rookies to appear in every regular season game (Nathan MacKinnon and Tyler Johnson were the others), he was tied for 20th among 26 rookies appearing in more than 25 games (the number rendering them ineligible for Calder Trophy qualification in future years) in goals scored (3), tied for 17th in assists (7), 19th in points, and 25th – next to last – in average time on ice. You could say that he outperformed his ice time, but it is not the strongest argument.
In the modern era (post-1967 expansion), Tom Wilson is one of only 18 rookies playing in at least 50 games who recorded at least ten points (he had 10) and at least 150 penalty minutes (he had 151). He is one of only eight players in that group who was a “plus” player (plus-1). And here is an odd fact. Wilson skated ten minutes or more in 16 games last season. The Caps were 8-4-4 in those contests. Now perhaps he was stapled to the bench in close third period games and got more third period time in wins, but still.
Since the 2004-2005 lockout, 18 rookies have played in all 82-games of their rookie season. Wilson was 18th in goals (three, compared to the next lowest total – five – in 2007-2008 by Toby Enstrom…a defenseman), 18th in assists (10, compared to 20 in 2007-2008 for Torrey Mitchell in 17th place), 18th in points (10, half that of Mitchell), tied for 15th with three other players (that is, last) in power play goals (one), 18th in shots on goal (63, compared to 98 in 2007-2008 for Andrew Cogliano one rank higher), tied for 17th (again, last) in shooting percentage (4.8, with Enstrom), and 18th in minutes (651, compared to 1120 for Cogliano, the next lowest number). That’s certainly not all on Wilson, not by a long shot. The Caps spoon fed him ice time and used one of those baby spoons to boot.
The Big Question… Can Tom Wilson play a bigger role in 2014-2015?
Tom Wilson could have a long and productive career with the Capitals. He probably projects as a reliable third line option, perhaps even second line, on the right wing. At the moment, though, he suffers from there being a bit of a log jam on that side. Even with Alex Ovechkin being moved back to the left side, there are Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and possibly Eric Fehr ahead of him on the depth chart. Time might solve that problem, since Ward and Fehr are both on the final year of their current contracts. But for now, Wilson is still on the bottom rung of the ladder.
It begs the question of whether the Caps should make room for Wilson my moving one of those ahead him, either to another position (Fehr played center much of the time last season) or to another team. The difference this year, though, is that the AHL option is there for Wilson that was not there last season. There is a certain charm in that possibility in that it might provide an opportunity for him to develop a working chemistry with Andre Burakowsky, a prospect of considerable potential who faces an uphill climb to make the parent club out of training camp this fall and who might benefit from a full year playing a large role in Hershey. To the extent one believes in the power of pairs, rather than lines (and I do), it might be the sort of postponed gratification on the way to three formidable pairs a few years down the line: Ovechkin/Backstrom, Kuznetsov/Vrana, and Burakovsky/Wilson.
In the end…
Tom Wilson’s first season in the NHL was characterized more by his willingness to do the dirty work of hockey. Not only did he get fourth line minutes, he was a frequent pugilist. His 14 fights was fifth in the league, and his 151 minutes in penalties tied for the 13th highest total for a first year player over the previous 20 seasons. None of the other 13 players were first round draft picks.
That might be considered part of the apprenticeship Wilson is performing. Now, it is time to hone his other skills, those within the rules. To answer “The Big Question,” that will mean he could very well play a larger role, once he recovers from the ankle injury he suffered over the summer. The thing is, that role might very well be played in Hershey.
Projection: 18 games, 3-4-7, plus-1
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images