COMMENTARY| On Friday, general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates informed young Tom Wilson that he would be staying in the NHL at least for the time being. Wilson had played eight games at the time and with 10 games, he will have officially entered into the first year of his entry-level contract.
Since entry-level deals are very inexpensive, teams do not like to lose a year unless they are sure the player is ready for the NHL. At 6'4", 210 pounds, Wilson does not look like a 19 year-old. He does not play like one either. Through nine games, however, Oates is sure treating him like one.
Wilson has been stuck on the fourth line and has not had enough time on the ice to make any sort of significant impact. After nine games, Wilson is only getting 7:07 of ice time per game. That's the second lowest on the team, higher only than Michael Latta who is now playing in Hershey. That is less time than even Aaron Volpatti is averaging in his two appearances this season. That sort of ice time does not reflect the trust you would expect from a coach who lobbied heavily for him prior to the season.
"We need what he brings," Oates told reporters during training camp.
Wilson presented the Caps with a very difficult problem because of his contract status. He is a junior-eligible player meaning that if he were not playing for the Capitals he would be required to rejoin his junior team, i.e. he is not eligible for the AHL. Though the AHL may seem like the next natural step in his development, the Capitals instead had to choose between keeping him in the NHL and sending him back to juniors.
The main priority for the Capitals regarding Wilson is to help him develop to his full potential. Based on what he is doing at the junior level, the Capitals have high hopes for his future and do not want to do anything that would impede his development. Keeping him in the OHL could do just that.
Wilson has the physical build and strength of an NHL player and would likely become a target for other junior players wanting to make a name for themselves or prove their toughness. His production also shot up last year to such a degree that would suggest that he has begun to progress past the level of talent found in the OHL. In the 2011-12 season, Wilson had 27 points in 49 games . In 2012-13, he recorded 57 points essentially doubling both his goal and assist totals from the previous season. Another year at that level probably would not help him develop his offensive abilities as he would be relying too much on his superior size and skill, advantages he will not have in the NHL.
While all of that is true, how is playing only seven minutes a night helping his development?
Despite talking about how much the team may 'need' Wilson, Oates' utilization of him has negated any type of impact he could have had. It is hard to get better from the bench. Perhaps Oates does not want to throw his young winger to the wolves right away, but after a poor start necessitated a change to the forward lines, Wilson still finds himself on the fourth line. Oates may have felt Wilson could have some sort of impact here and both he and McPhee clearly thought keeping him in the NHL was best for him, but it does not appear the team had any real plan for how best to utilize him.
Through nine games Wilson already has three fights, not including the two others he had in the preseason. While that may not necessarily be a bad thing, it does make the argument that the Capitals were worried about him becoming a target at the OHL ring hollow.
Which is more dangerous for a 19 year-old prospect: to be targeted by junior players, most of whom are smaller than he is, or to continue fighting NHL players?
An important question the Capitals need to ask themselves is what type of player do they think Wilson can ultimately be? If they think he can be a depth, grinding type of forward who will be best served as a third or fourth line player, then keeping him in the NHL makes sense. He is already assuming that type of role and just needs to develop a few more offensive skills in order to further contribute.
If, however, the Capitals believe he can ultimately be a top-six forward, does it really make sense to waste a year of his contract for seven minutes a game?
To be fair, as long as Wilson is with the team he is practicing with them which will carry some limited benefits. Practice hockey, however, is different from game hockey. It is difficult to believe that Wilson is learning enough in practice to justify getting seven minutes per game in the NHL.
Perhaps later in the season, Oates will move Wilson up in the lines and he will begin to see more minutes. If the plan going into this season was to keep him on the fourth line and limit his exposure to the NHL for the entire season, then the Capitals have made a huge mistake. By trying to help Wilson's development, the Capitals may instead have done just the opposite.
JJ Regan is a freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic and is currently earning a master's degree in journalism at American University. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy
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