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.
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.
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.
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.