Adam Oates has seen Tom Wilson play just three NHL games, all of them in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs and totaling just 20 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time.
Yet Oates sees tons of potential in the 19-year-old right wing and wants to maximize every inch of his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame.
That’s why, during the Caps’ first three days of rookie camp, Oates has suggested Wilson try using Troy Brouwer’s stick.
Brouwer, who stands 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, plays with a stick that has a more vertical lie, allowing him to play more of an upright game.
“He’s a huge man, but as you get up every level, I mean, there’s big boys up here,” Oates said of Wilson. “The lie of his stick, I thought, was a little low. [Brouwer’s stick] is a fraction different lie, but it’s a perfect opportunity to try it.”
Wilson has made the adjustment and noticed an immediate difference.
“He’s great at using little stuff to improve your game,” Wilson said of Oates, who is beginning his first full season behind the Caps bench. “He’s a great hockey mind and I respect his advice and I want to use it to the best of my ability.”
Wilson is at a real crossroads in his career. In his second season with the Plymouth Whalers last season, Wilson followed a strong regular season [23 goals, 35 assists in 48 games] with a dominant playoff [9 goals, 8 assists in 12 games], earning himself three playoff games with the Hershey Bears and three more with the Capitals.
But is he ready to be an impact player in Washington, where he would likely play behind right wings Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward?
“I’d like to think so,” Wilson said. “I played at this level last year and I felt good. I think I’m going to play in the league at some point.
“I think the real question is whether it’s better to take my time and go back and develop a little bit more in Plymouth or make the jump and learn more up here. It’s not really my decision. I just have to make their decision tough to send me away.”
Now that Ovechkin has been moved from left wing to right wing, the Caps are overloaded on the right side and could use some more punch from the left, where their depth chart has unsigned Marcus Johansson, Marty Erat, Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera.
Oates said it would be unfair to Wilson to move him to the left side, where he’d likely see more ice time.
“Right now my answer would be no because I wouldn’t want to hurt his learning curve,” Oates said. “Short term, anybody could do it, but if you project where he can get to as a hockey player I think he’s going to be a strong right winger and I wouldn’t want to slow that down in any capacity.”
If Wilson makes the Capitals out of training camp his 2013-14 salary of $1.3 million would count against the team’s cap and that could impact what the Caps can pay Johansson. Without Johansson and Wilson the Caps have $2.6 million in cap space.
Money, however, won’t be the determining factor when it comes to deciding if Wilson is ready for the NHL. Ice time will.
“Do I go home and play 30 or 35 minutes in Plymouth?” Wilson wondered. “Or at the start of the season play 8 or 9 minutes [in Washington], which is great and you can still learn off the ice and work hard in the gym, but you need that on-ice experience and playing the power play and penalty kill when you’re young.”
It’s a question the Capitals have about three weeks to answer.