After wrapping up practice Friday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Washington Capitals right wing Tom Wilson was called into coach Adam Oates' office. Initially, the 19-year-old thought that Oates simply wanted to talk about Saturday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets or go over the finer details of the system -- but then general manager George McPhee joined them.
"I was like, 'Uh oh, this might not be good'," Wilson said.
Wilson's fears, however, were unwarranted. Both Oates and McPhee informed Wilson Friday that he will remain with the Capitals for the rest of the season.
"We just told him we've obviously liked his progression, so many things he brings," Oates said. "It's a tough decision we've talked about a lot of times, about how we don't want to hold him back. ... He hasn't acted like a 19-year-old. He acts like he belongs, and we want to keep him growing and find [him] minutes when we can. He's doing a good job and we don't want him to think about it."
It was a conversation that Oates and McPhee have had in some form for some time: What is the best decision for Wilson's development?
Whether the 2012 first-round draft pick would benefit from playing in the NHL, albeit in a diminished role -- or would be better off returning to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League -- has been a question with which management has wrangled.
As with every story, there are two sides.
On one side, Wilson has averaged just 6:41 of ice time per game as fourth-line right wing, which ranks 50th among 52 NHL rookie skaters who have appeared in at least four games. A lack of regular ice time -- he averages a team-low 10.1 shifts per game -- has not afforded Wilson the opportunity to truly develop his game at full speed. Also, Wilson will never usurp Alex Ovechkin or Troy Brouwer in the right-wing hierachy unless injuries necessitate such a move, so Wilson will have to get by and improve as part of the bottom six.
On the other side, Wilson would all but likely dominate his peers back in juniors, where he previously estimated that he saw upwards of 30 minutes of ice time per game at even strength and on special teams. Then again, without the middle ground of the American Hockey League to test his mettle against fellow professionals, returning to juniors would not provide enough of a challenge.
Either way, a decision was nigh; assuming he would remain in the lineup, Wilson would appear in his ninth game Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets, and a 10th game would burn the first year of his three-year entry-level contract.
Because of Wilson's age, if he did not stick with the Capitals, he would have to return to the Whalers for the remainder of the OHL season. Washington, however, can send Wilson back to Plymouth at any time, but he cannot be sent to the AHL because he has yet to turn 20.
Oates has admitted whenever someone has broached the topic that there is no "perfect formula" on how to handle a young player's development, saying so once again Friday, but he and McPhee felt that keeping Wilson around, despite limited ice time, would be best.
"He can go back to junior and score goals and get assists and play 20 minutes, but develop a lot of bad habits and they're not the goals he'd score here, not the assists you'd get here, they're not situations or the speed you'd get here," Oates said. "We think he belongs and we want him and the teammates love him, and hopefully he'll continue to grow."
Since arriving for development camp three months ago, Wilson has taken a "day-by-day" approach. While he will continue to do so, he feels as if though he can finally relax a little bit.
"It's huge; it's awesome; it definitely makes me feel a little bit more comfortable," Wilson said. "Every kid that comes in the league, the league's made a big deal about that nine-, 10-game rule on contracts and all that stuff, so it's always in the back of your mind and you're trying to make the most out of the beginning of the season, but [I'll] definitely be able to settle in a little bit and almost have that mindset that I'm going to be around and start to get comfortable."
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