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Tom Wilson rejoins Capitals eager to prove he's ready

ARLINGTON, Va. – So Tom Wilson, how did your brief stay with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears go?

Wilson played in two games with Bears before his quick recall to the Washington Capitals on October 28. He didn’t score any points down there, but he was able to test his left ankle, which had been surgically repaired after being fractured in an offseason fall.

“It was a good week and definitely what I needed,” Wilson said on Wednesday morning, shortly after the Capitals completed their early skate ahead of that night’s game against Detroit.

"How was your time in the minors?" is a question you couldn’t have asked Wilson last season. Chosen by the Caps with the 16h pick of the first round of the 2012 draft while he was a member of the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, he was bound by an agreement between the NHL and the Canadian junior leagues.

As a teenager, a player can’t be sent to the minor leagues. If his NHL team chooses not to keep him, he must go back to his junior team and stay there until the season is completed. So the Capitals rolled the dice and kept the then-19-year-old Wilson. He played in all of their 82 games, albeit as a fourth-liner with limited ice time. He also became the team’s primary pugilist and managed to collect three goals and seven assists to go with his 151 penalty minutes.

It was in no way a bad year, though Wilson naturally would have liked a bigger role and more ice time. It also left a question: Would his development have been better served if he’d been able to spend some time advancing his game in the AHL? A 6-foot-4, 210-pounder, Wilson was probably too advanced to get much good out of another year in juniors. He'd scored 23 goals in 48 games with Plymouth the previous season.

Shouldn’t he have had the same right as his teammate last year, Connor Carrick, or his teammate this year, Andre Burakovsky? The Caps also kept them as teenagers but can send them to the minors (as they did with Carrick last season) because they weren’t drafted out of the Canadian junior leagues. The agreement was designed to protect the juniors from losing their best players too soon. If they’re ready for the NHL, fine. If not? Send them back here, thank you.

Wilson understands its purpose.

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“It keeps the junior leagues good, keeps it competitive for the younger guys there,” he said. “There’s great hockey minds that have put these rules in place for a reason. I’d like to think they’ve thought about all the options and picked the best scenario.”

Understanding the rule is nice. It doesn’t make it easier when you’re the player caught in the middle. Wilson knows another year in juniors wouldn’t have helped him. He knows just being in the NHL was good for his mental and physical development. But would he have been even further along with some AHL seasoning? That’s the great unanswered question.

Barry Trotz, in his first year coaching the Caps, understands the rule, too. Players like Wilson don’t come along all that often and Trotz says there ought to be an amendment to the rule that allows an NHL team to pay a junior club a specified amount to waive the rule “once every five years or so.” 

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“Going and dominating in juniors is not a bad thing. You’re playing 20 minutes. But it may delay your development in some areas,” the coach noted.

As coach of the Predators last season, Trotz wasn’t part of the decision to keep Wilson. After he was let go by Nashville after the season, it didn’t take long for him to catch on with the Caps, who had an opening after firing Adam Oates. Trotz spent a lot of time studying last year’s tapes and noticed the progress Wilson had made despite limited ice time. Upon meeting him, it became clear to Trotz that Wilson’s makeup helped him deal with the limited role and take advantage of learning what he could when he could.

“His foot speed got better,” Trotz said. “He became pretty effective getting around the ice. Tom’s a very mature young man. Had an immature young man been not playing a lot here, it might have been a lot tougher.”

If he regresses, the Caps at least have the option now of sending Wilson to the minor. But no one expects that to happen. Trotz doesn’t see him as a fourth-liner, and most projections have him as an eventual top-six forward.

“Being here every day, learning from these guys, watching them, learning about the professionalism, that’s a big part of it, too,” Wilson said. “This is such a professional environment and such a good group of guys. I learned so much last year.

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“I had developed so much physically, I was big and strong, so playing against 16-year-old kids every night wasn’t going to make me better physically," he added. "Here I was battling against men. Big, strong guys, the best players in the world. I learned a ton and I’ll have a little more confidence this year."

Troy Brouwer, one of Washington's veteran forwards, said it takes a while for any player to adjust to the level of play in the NHL, and taking advantage of teammates who can help you do that is paramount. Wilson, he said, definitely took advantage and it paid off for him perhaps more than time in the minors would have.

“At some point, you need someone to show you how to be professional, how to carry yourself, how to represent your team,” Brouwer said. “I think Willy learned and really did a good job with that.

“He’s more of a veteran presence now even though it is only his second year. He has that demeanor. He knows when to work, when to have a good time, when to joke and laugh. Guys respect him and he’s going to be a great leader on this team real soon,” Brouwer said.

After Wednesday’s morning skate, Trotz still wasn’t certain if Wilson would make his season debut against the Red Wings or over the weekend  when the Caps had a pair of games against Tampa Bay on the road and Arizona at home. Trotz ended up sending him out against Detroit and Wilson recorded one shot in 11 shifts worth 8:14 of ice time in Washington's 4-2 loss. The “learning year” is now behind him and his ankle is healed. He’s eager to show that he doesn’t need that time in minors. Watching, he said, was tough, but he's already focused on this season.

"Last year, I was thinking this year was going to be huge for me and it is going to be," said Wilson. "It’s a little late getting started but I’m looking forward to getting back into it."