Tom Wilson and Nate Schmidt have taken different paths to their rookie seasons with the Capitals, but are sharing the experience together as road roommates.
Wilson, a 19-year-old Toronto native, went the Canadian junior route and was taken by the Caps in the first round of the 2012 draft.
Schmidt, 22, went undrafted and stayed close to his hometown of St. Cloud, Minn., attending the University of Minnesota for three years before signing with the Caps.
Last week, the two rookies shared hotel rooms as the Caps went on their first extended road trip of season, an eight-day journey that took them to Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver before returning home and experiencing their first NHL game in Philadelphia.
“It was awesome,” Wilson said. “We went into every city not knowing what to expect. I was on the bench in Vancouver and the stanchions are lighting up and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is cool!’ And Brooks [Laich] said, ‘Oh, yeah, this is your first time here.’”
Schmidt was equally impressed with the visit to Vancouver, saying it was his favorite stop on the four-city road trip.
“Every building’s unique and each place has its own atmosphere,” he said. “In Vancouver, that was an excellent show they put on.”
Off the ice, Wilson and Schmidt were forced to get along as hotel roommates. Schmidt, who is perpetually smiling, said the two argued over everything.
“We battle all the time,” he said with a laugh. “Just about anything you can think of, we’ve battled over it. Even if there’s not, one of us will try to come up with something just to get on each other’s nerves.”
On the ice, both players are adjusting to increased responsibilities.
Wilson played a season-high 11:36 in the Caps’ 4-1 win in Edmonton and logged 9:03 in the caps’ 7-0 win in Philadelphia, but saw just 6:05 of action in the Caps’ 3-2 shootout win over Florida on Saturday night.
He said with Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward above him on the Capitals’ depth chart, he’s in no position to demand more playing time than he’s getting.
“Any hockey mind looks at this team and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know I’m not going to be playing power play, because if you look at it, it’s stacked,” Wilson said.
“I mean, it’s the best in the league. There’s so much skill in this room and I’m just trying to learn from them. I’m not complaining about ice time. I just want to do whatever I can to help the team when I’m out there.
“Every game is different and I’m just trying to work hard when I’m out there.”
Wilson said the biggest difference he’s noticed in the NHL is that while he’s bigger than most players at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, he can’t overpower players the way he did against other teenagers with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL.
“I’m still learning how to use my big body,” he said. “In junior, I could get away with stuff. I could run after hits. When I got the puck I could protect it and the guy would fall down.
“Now I get the puck, I get bumped and the guy’s still there and gives me another one. In junior I could get away a little bit with [body] positioning. Everyone is strong here and I’m not the biggest body anymore.”
Schmidt was recalled by the Capitals after Jack Hillen broke his leg in the second game of the season and he’s taken on a larger role since John Erskine went on LTIR to rehab his surgically repaired knee.
In his first 10 NHL games, Schmidt ranks fourth among Caps defensemen in ice time [18:41] and is being paired with Mike Green on the second unit. Schmidt had assists in three straight games before being held off the score sheet Saturday night against the Panthers.
“I think over the last couple games we’ve been a lot better knowing where each other is going to be and where we like the puck,” Schmidt said. “If you think about some of the best defense pairs in the league, how many years have they played together? Look at [Duncan] Keith and [Brent] Seabrook. They’ve been together like five years. Right now, Mike and I are just trying to get to know each other a little better.”
Wilson said he’s hoping Schmidt can stay with the Caps, not because he want to share a hotel room all season, but because he may need some financial assistance when the annual rookie dinner comes along.
“That could hurt the wallet a little bit,” said Schmidt. “I’m hoping I’m here to help pay for that. That would be a lot to put on Willy.”