Tom Wilson’s Future is Not on the Fourth Line

Derek Leung

Photo: Derek Leung

The Washington Capitals had a tough decision to make in Tom Wilson. The promising young forward could have started the year with the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL, where he’d likely score over a point per game. Instead, George McPhee decided the 19-year-old was ready for the big show. Having played more than ten games in the NHL,  Wilson is now consuming the first year of his entry-level contract, but he’s got precious little to show for it.

Playing under seven minutes a night on the Caps’ fourth line, it’s not a big surprise that Wilson has yet to score his first NHL point. Instead his role has been relegated to fisticuffs: Wilson leads the team in fighting majors with 4. For a big, physical prospect touted by some as a future power forward, the early season comes a disappointment.

I’m not sure why.

Yes, Tom Wilson is still pointless. Of the 14 remaining NHL rookies without a point, Tom Wilson has seen– by far– the most ice time. That he’s yet to record an assist or goal is noteworthy– moreso considering he’s been on the ice for only one 5v5 Caps goal altogether: John Carlson’s snap shot on Saturday night.

That’s remarkable, but beyond the boxcar stats Wilson’s play has been solid.

chart_1 (1)

This bar graph illustrates the percentage of even-strength shots that were in the Capitals’ favor so far this year. 50% would mean each team is attempting half the shots; Wilson has been near or above that mark in 9 of 14 games. He’s had negative puck possession in just five. Measuring by that standard, Wilson has done quite well on the ice– particularly considering the typical expectations for a grinder: to wear down the opponent by forechecking without necessarily shooting.

For the record, Wilson’s possession has been markedly better than the team as a whole. The Caps’ possession has been under 50% in 9 of their 14 games, though that number is often affected by the score– protecting a lead or attempting comebacks.

The point remains: Wilson has not been a liability. The team has done better when he’s on the ice than when he’s not. The decision to starve him of playing time is curious, and it may have a real impact on his future.

“He is not getting the required repetitions I would want a young player to obtain for his development even if he’s getting the experience of playing in the NHL,” says Corey Pronman, prospect writer for ESPN. “In order for a player to stick in the NHL as an under-20 forward drafted out of the CHL, in most cases I have to be sure they’ll play top-9 minutes at the least.”

Wilson is at least five shifts per game under than that threshold. That may suggest a future reassignment.

Ice time is the purview of coach Adam Oates, who surely gets the benefit of the doubt. The point of hockey isn’t to spend ice time developing young players; it’s to win. “I don’t question the ice time he’s getting in Washington,” Pronman tells me. “As an organization you have to balance development and winning, but the scale will almost always be heavily titled towards the latter.”

But without a line promotion, it’s becomes more unlikely for Tom Wilson will remain in the NHL. Reassigning him to the OHL would not be unprecedented. RMNB’s own prospect expert Fedor Fedin concurs, and he observes a pattern of teams sending their power forward prospects back to the farm for seasoning:

Philly returned Scott Laughton to Oshawa. Nashville’s Colton Sissons was eligible to play in the AHL, so they assigned him to Milwaukee. Mark Stone, a late-round gem in 2010, has played in just four NHL games with Ottawa since. Boone Jenner spent two years with Oshawa after draft before cracking the Columbus opening night roster this season.

Big prospects are not a market inefficiency. They’re often overvalued, and much is expected of them upon making their big-league debuts. Some front offices and fans may expect each physical young player to be the next Milan Lucic, who made the big club in Boston the year after he was drafted and began producing immediately.

Photo: Greg Fiume

Photo: Greg Fiume

That may be unwise, but comparisons between Wilson and Lucic have been common from the beginning. The Bruins forward was mentioned in pretty much every RMNB piece about Wilson last summer [1, 2, 3, 4, 5].

“But for every Lucic,” Fedor warns me, “there are three Kyle Cliffords, who was considered a good prospect with glowing stats in the juniors before making the jump to the NHL and getting stuck in the Kings’ bottom-six.”

A recalibration of expectations seems in order.

It’s true that Wilson is free of the baggage a lot of other developing prospects get saddled with. “‘They need to fill out” or ‘get stronger’ or ‘bulk up’– that part is already done for Wilson,” says Fedor Pronman. “He’s already a hard-working, physical player.”

He certainly is, and that precociousness makes the want of goals that much more pronounced.

“Wilson won’t be a primary offensive guy who the offense flows through,” Pronman says. “I still think he projects as a decent second-line power winger, but not in the immediate future.”

Does that make Wilson a disappointment? It’s all a matter of perspective. “Relative to other top rookies he’s been below-average,” says Pronman, “but this is one of the stronger rookie classes of the past few years.”

Neither Pronman nor Fedin tell me their estimation of Wilson has changed as a result of these first 14 games. Improvement seems imminent, but how it happens is far less certain.

Photo: Chris Gordon

Photo: Chris Gordon

The Capitals could assign Wilson back to Plymouth any time. Wilson would not have to clear waivers, though his contract year would be consumed either way. While George McPhee and Adam Oates have nothing but good things to say about him, his on-ice usage and the glut of bottom-line players on the Caps roster seem to make him expendable.

“I would prefer to see him in the AHL,” Pronman tells me, “but seeing as that’s not a realistic choice per the ridiculous CHL-NHL agreement, I’d prefer to see him playing 20 minutes a night in the OHL and playing a prime role at the World Juniors.”

If Wilson were to stay in Washington, however, perhaps a bigger role would do him well.

“I’d like to see what Wilson could do on a second or third line with the likes of Martin Erat or Mikhail Grabovski,” Fedor tells me. Another place where Fedor thinks Wilson might flourish is the power play, where Wilson could be a dominating presence in the crease. As the league inevitably finds ways to flummox Washington’s soaring power play, Adam Oates might do well to utilize Wilson as the low man in the 1-3-1.

People who know better than I do seem to think the big club isn’t the place for Tom Wilson right now. His time on ice isn’t typical of a player who sticks around– at least not right away. That’s a shame, as Wilson has done perfectly well at what he has been asked to do. If a return to the Whalers is likely, let’s hope Wilson gets one real crack at NHL scoring before it happens.

Follow Corey Pronman on Twitter. Additional reporting by Fedor Fedin. This article has been updated to correct attribution of a quote.

  • dylan wheatley


  • ohhh Facebook.

    P.S. I feel like the people who comment on FB don’t actually read the articles.

  • JH

    I find all the discussion about Wilson a bit whiny. He’s 19 and he’s playing in the NHL. That’s pretty good for a 19 year old, light the lamp or no.
    I guess what I don’t get is what’s so, so oppressive about being on the fourth line? Is it impossible to make something happen on the fourth line? In the case of Erat, sure, I felt like his (proven) talent was being wasted, especially when MoJo wasn’t shooting. But….I like this kid and want him to do well, but I think the question to be asked is, how is he doing relative to other bottom six guys? Is he holding his own? Then, great.
    In terms of moving him up to the top six, you have to ask, is he really better than Ovi, Nicky, Marty, Grabo, Fehr, MoJo, Laich or Brouwer? That’s eight dudes who are legit top sixers*, and they’re not all able to play top six hockey already.
    * I know there are quibbles about that, but for the purpose of argument, just go along with me here.

  • dylan wheatley

    nobody reads the articles pete, we’re here for the nude pictures

  • chris

    Lol, Brooks Laich and Tbro are not legit top 6 hockey players. They have a combined 6 points between them and are a combined -10. Doesnt sound very legit top 6 to me. Both are 2/3 line tweeners signed to contracts more than they are worth. Classic GMGM, Im sure you believe Big John is a legit top 4 dman and Mojo was great with OV and Backy too. Try and watch more hockey bro.

  • dylan wheatley

    laich and brouwer are definitely legitimate top 6 players. they’re having a slow start this year, but both are former 20 goal scorers.

    i also don’t know what you mean about mojo, he was fighting a concussion for much of last year, and when he wasn’t he was phenomenal. he’s been great on the first line so far this year.

    ersk’s contract isn’t top 4 dman money. he’s signed for less than 2mil/yr, which is pretty standard 3 pairing veteran dman money.

    try to watch more hockey, bro.

  • Shaun Phillips

    It’s not a question of holding his own (which he obviously is). It’s a question of development. Young players need ice time to develop their skill sets. If you’re only getting 7-9 minutes of ice time in a game and with bottom 6 talent, that’s not much time to learn and grow as a player, especially taken in 30-45 second line shifts of time.

    I do like the idea of using him on the power play. It gives him a chance to play with top 6 talent in an offensive set. Caps are sorely missing a net-front presence on the PP. The only offense on the PP is usually Ovi from Ovi Spot or Brouwer from the inside edge of the right circle (after down low to Nicky). There’s very few dirty goals or redirects.

    While Laich and Brouwer have both been top 6 in the past, I think Laich might have slowed a step or two that puts him in the 2/3 range. Brouwer is still a solid contributor in the top 6.

  • Dylan is an idiot

    Keep drinking the kool aid guys, Ted loves your money.

  • Chris

    I guarantee you Marge centering the Talk Twins will be the worst line on the ice tonight!

  • Dave

    I agree that Brouwer is still top 6 (last year he had 19 goals in 47 games played, for instance). Laich probably not. It sounds blasphemous to break up the 3rd line, but I’d be curious to see how Laich would do there, and put another winger (Caps have plenty of options) with Grabo and Brouwer on the 2nd.

    To me, it looks like Wilson is playing unselfishly — trying to make the right plays instead of rushing to get his first goal. I don’t really see the harm in gradually ramping up his ice time. It’s only been 14 games… let him get used to the speed, skill, and size of the players before handing him a bigger assignment.

  • Freedoooom

    Stop giving credit to Wilson.

    Latta and Volpatti are playing good. Wilson runs around hitting whoever used to have the puck.

  • Joe

    Troy 16 pts in 64 playoff games

  • Ben Reed

    McPhee said in May:

    “I explained to him, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for your development’. Right now I’m not sure what that is…Is it go back to junior, be on the power play and kill penalties and score 40 goals? Or come and play with us for 8 to 10 minutes a game and survive? I don’t want him to be a career survivor, though. I want him to develop.”

    Either McPhee is ignoring this warning, or Oates is. Either way, they are doing to Wilson right now precisely what they stated, mere months ago, they did NOT want to do.

    This is troubling. Until he gets top 9 minutes, it will remain troubling. If he is sent down that’s better, but troubling in another way: poor asset management.

  • Fedor

    I’ve been under that impression for the last couple years. Especialy when there’s a name Evgeny Kuznetsov in the header.

  • using playoff performance as a predictor of future performance is Peter’s pet peeve


  • prettygood

    I think he’ll get his shot, eventually. Once the love affair with Brooks Laich fizzles, and someone in the organization realizes Brooks isn’t all that good. (solid all around player, but not top 6) Hopefully Wilson gets his chance. There’s no doubt in my mind that the 2nd line would be better off with Wilson rather than Laich.

  • bskillet

    I think Wilson is right where he should be, that 4th line is pretty much what’s expected of a 4th line. If we could rotate 12 Ovi’s on each shift I’m sure we would but nobody can so I think they do what there job is quite well. Caps are coming together.