Back in September it was one of the most hotly debated topics coming out of training camp:
Should the Capitals keep 19-year-old rookie right wing Tom Wilson on their NHL roater, or should they send him back to the Plymouth Whalers for a final year of junior hockey?
Seventy-five games into his NHL career, the Capitals believe they made the right call with the 6-foot-4, 210-pound native of Toronto.
“I think it was the right decision, hands down,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “I think he’s had a great year. If you look at where he is right now, he’s happy. His teammates love him. He’s improving on a daily basis. He’s flying, he’s physical. There are times we need to slow him down.
“I think he’s in a great spot.”
So does Wilson and his parents, Keven and Neville, who visited their son in Washington for his 20th birthday over the weekend, along with Wilson’s grandfather.
“I know people talk about Tom’s ice time, but he’s learned so much this season,” Keven Wilson said. “Adam Oates has really been good for him.”
Wilson is one of just four NHL rookies to have played in every one of his team’s games this season, yet his average ice time of 7:39 ranks 172nd among NHL rookies.
Lately, those minutes have increased. Wilson has logged more than 10 minutes a game in each of the Caps’ last four games, a significant jump for a player that does not kill penalties or play on the power play.
Last Tuesday night against the Kings Wilson saw a career-high 12:47 of ice time and registered nine hits, also a career high.
“My physical play has been there the whole year,” said Wilson, who is third on the Capitals with 181 hits, behind only Troy Brouwer  and Alex Ovechkin . “When you’re playing a lot of minutes you don’t realize how many hits you’re making.”
Offensively, Wilson’s game is still growing. He has three goals and seven assists this season and has fought 13 times this season, most on the Capitals and fifth-most in the NHL.
Wilson said he might have been fighting just as much, maybe more, if he had stayed in Plymouth with the Whalers.
“Even in junior there was always someone bigger than me,” Wilson said. “It’s a fine line. I don’t want to be fighting all the heavyweights in the league. That’s not a good thing for me. I want to be fighting when I have to, protecting teammates and playing a hard-nosed game.”
Oates believes another year in junior hockey could have stunted Wilson’s development as a player, saying he’s learning far more at the NHL level than he would have in Plymouth. Oates referenced Eric Lindros, who played an extra year in junior as a 19-year-old while refusing to play for the Quebec Nordiques.
“Lindros’ last year in Oshawa he was a man-child,” Oates said. “But they still have other big guys on teams and they’re all trying to kill him. Willie would have gone back to junior and he would have done great, but I didn’t want him to get bad habits. We control his habits and I think he’s improving.”
Back in December, Keven Wilson wondered if his son might benefit from playing in the World Junior Championships for Team Canada, a two-week tournament featuring the best 19-year-olds in the world. Oates countered that Wilson was already benefitting from playing with and against the best players in the world.
“Adam’s been so good to me,” Wilson said. “Taking time after practice, even 70-some games into the season.”
Off the ice, the Capitals also tried to make life easier for their youngest player, setting him up with a nearby billet family. Neville Wilson said she’s grateful her son has been able to mature at his own pace.
“It’s nice for him to stay a kid for as long as he can in a healthy environment,” she said, “because we all know childhood ends way too early for most of us, so prolonging that has been important for me.”
Wilson is living with a family that has a 12-year-old child and said he enjoys the comforts of having someone cook his meals and occasionally do his laundry.
“I wasn’t sure going in what it would be like, but it’s been awesome,” Wilson said. “Any time I’m too lazy to go out and get a meal they’re cooking meals every night. When I need laundry done and I’m tired from a long road trip, they help me out. It’s been nice to not have to worry about anything but playing hockey all year.
“It’s been a pretty good year.”