We know the Capitals have plenty of skill players, but when the team drafted Tom Wilson last month they added something else: a big, bruising forward who isn’t afraid to push people around. In the first two scrimmages of Washington’s Development Camp this week, that something was on display as the 6′ 3″, 205-pound winger bounced around the ice making a myriad of hits and occasionally jawing with prospects on the opposite team. This, it seems, is exactly what Capitals General Manager George McPhee was looking for when he took Wilson 16th overall, somewhat ahead of his projected draft slot.
“When we were in the middle of the playoffs I made a note after the games: remember these games when you’re at the draft,” McPhee told reporters in Pittsburgh after the pick. “Remember how intense they are, how physical they are, how demanding they are, and make sure you get someone who wants to play in that kind of stuff.”
At just 18-years-old Wilson still has more room to grow — as a player and perhaps in size — but so far he has impressed during Development Camp with his dominating physical presence, especially when matched up against fellow teenagers.
“The first thing I’ve noticed is that the compete level is really high which is great,” Wilson said of his experience so far in an interview at Kettler Capitals Iceplex Tuesday. “All the guys are competing for spots which is really good to see.”
He continued: “I think I just want to play my game and make a few hits and make things happen out there. I’m still learning trying to take as much from [new coach Adam] Oates as possible and implement that into my game. Just go out there, play my game, try and make things physical and see what happens.”
Though his ability to manhandle opposing players is the most important part of his game now — and probably the key to an NHL career — Wilson wasn’t always able to the play that way. In fact, he says his growth spurt is “fairly recent” and “was tough to adjust” to as he made the transition up to midget hockey.
Now that he does have the size, Wilson is often compared to Milan Lucic, a hulking forward for the Bruins who has notched over 60 points and 25 goals the last two seasons. It isn’t just other people who put him in Lucic’s mold. Wilson himself says the Boston winger is “definitely” the main player he’s patterned his game after.
The Lucic correlation, however, may be a bit of a stretch at the moment. While they both have massive frames (though Lucic has an inch and 20 pounds on Wilson), Lucic is also able to put up big offensive numbers consistently, something Wilson just hasn’t done yet as a single-digit goal scorer in junior hockey. But the upside is there. Though he scored just nine goals as bottom-six forward for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers in the regular season, Wilson showed a huge increase in production when he was bumped up to a top spot in the playoffs after Plymouth suffered injuries to its forward corps. In 13 postseason games, he tallied 13 points including seven goals.
“A couple guys went down who have great shots and that allowed me to get a little bit more playing time, a little bit more power play time,” said Wilson. “Had a few goals, got the confidence, kept it rolling, and just had a good playoff.”
In addition to his physical play during the action, Wilson is also know for his willingness to drop the gloves. As for a former high school rugby player, he is no weakling, though he did decide to stick to hockey because rugby is “a pretty gruesome sport.” In his two years playing junior hockey, he racked up almost 20 fights and TSN analyst Bob McKenzie called him one of the best fighters in this year’s draft class. Wilson insists, however, that he isn’t simply a goon who fights for show.
“I try and pick the right spots in a game to fight,” Wilson said. “If somebody gets cheap-shotted or if one of my teammates goes down, then I’ll step up. Or sometimes guys have problems with the way I play so I have to defend myself. I don’t really go out there and look for it that often.”
Time will tell if Tom Wilson makes in the NHL, whether as a dynamic top-six forward or gritty third- or fourth-liner. For now, he’s just a 18-year-old kid playing the sport he loves with a chance to live his dream.
“After I got drafted to the O[HL] pretty high, it sort of set in that maybe I could make this a career and run with it,” Wilson said.
“I’ve been pretty lucky,” he added.
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