When the Capitals decided to keep 19-year-old rookie Tom Wilson on their opening-night roster, they knew the risk involved.
General manager George McPhee said he didn’t want Wilson to be “hanging on” as a fourth-liner with limited minutes, but Capitals coach Adam Oates said his team needed a physical presence who was willing to drop the gloves with anyone.
And that’s what Wilson did.
In the second game of the season Wilson took on Calgary’s Lance Bouma after he broke the leg of Capitals teammate Jack Hillen with a big hit along the boards. And the fights kept coming.
In the first four months of the season Wilson dropped the gloves 11 times, averaging a fight every five games.
But in the past 16 games, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder from Toronto has fought just once.
“If I’m fighting, it’s going to be on my own terms now,” Wilson said recently.
“I’ve spoken to Oatesy and Foz [assistant coach Blaine Forsythe] a little bit about that. It’s important that if our line is outnumbering them in their zone and playing better than their fourth line, we need that right now.
“That needs to be the case down the stretch, four lines going, and if we can dominate that fourth line, that’s huge for our team.”
That’s exactly what happened over the weekend in crucial wins over the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs. Against the Canucks, Wilson resisted the urge to drop the gloves with forward Tom Sestito, who leads the NHL with 17 fighting majors. Instead, Wilson drew a penalty on Sestito that led to a Capitals power-play goal, and later beat him up the ice for his third goal of the season on a spectacular pass by rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov.
“You’ve got to evolve your game,” Oates said. “It has nothing to do with being scared. Willy will go with anybody, we know that. But there are times in the game a team doesn’t want that and the more he continues to recognize that, excellent.
“There are wrong times. Guys who play with a physical game on the edge, there are going to be minors that as a coach you wish he didn’t take, but that’s part of the deal.”
There were critics out there – and many still remain – that believed Wilson’s development as a player would be slowed by him languishing on the Capitals’ fourth line. Among the NHL’s 188 rookies this season, Wilson ranks first in penalty minutes , tied for first in games  and 167th in ice time [7:25].
Oates doesn’t buy it.
At the start of the season Oates said he wanted to gradually expand Wilson’s minutes and role with the team. But with Alex Ovechkin [46 goals, 20:41 TOI], Troy Brouwer [21 goals, 18:51] and Joel Ward [21 goals, 16:10] ahead of Wilson it has been virtually impossible.
“I think Willie’s done great,” Oates said. “I wish we could find more minutes, but I’m also guarded and cautious about letting him grow slow. The strength he has, the skating and getting in on the forecheck. Really, there are times he’s got to slow down.”
Oates pointed to Wilson’s strong forecheck on Mike Green’s game-winning goal against the Canucks as an example of the impact he can have on a game.
“He goes to the net and he’s like a vacuum,” Oates said. “He bumps three guys, helps break down their coverage and gives a little more room for Greenie. And with Greenie, that’s all he needs.”
Unless there is a roster move over the summer, Wilson and the Caps face a similar predicament with ice time next season. All four of the Caps’ right wings are under contract for next season.
“It’s hard right now,” Oates said of distributing ice time. “But I think we’re doing it right.”