At last year’s Capitals development camp, Tom Wilson slammed so many bodies during three days of intrasquad scrimmages that general manager George McPhee asked him to tone it down and keep the other future members of the organization out of the trainer’s room.
It was a little like asking a fish to stop breathing under water.
“That’s just the way I play,” Wilson said Tuesday on the second day of his second development camp, “and I’m not going to change that.”
On Wednesday, the Caps’ prospects will take part in their first of four days of scrimmages and the easiest way to find Wilson is to listen for the sound of rattling glass.
At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Wilson is 12 pounds heavier than he was when the Caps made him the 16th player taken in the 2012 draft and, according to McPhee, it hasn’t come from eating nachos.
“He’s in fabulous shape,” McPhee said. “He’s put on a lot of weight since the end of the season and his body fat is low, so it’s good weight.”
Wilson is coming off a memorable season in which he recorded a career-high 23 goals, 35 assists and 104 penalty minutes in 48 games with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. He played another three playoff games with the AHL Bears and suited up for the final three games of the Capitals’ playoff series against the New York Rangers, recording four shots and eight hits while averaging just 6:52 of ice time in those games.
“There are no words to describe going out onto the ice at Verizon Center in front of all those amazing fans,” Wilson said. “It was packed, a sea of red. Game 5 in overtime I’m just sitting on the bench thinking, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ I was just taking it all in. It was a dream come true.”
The question now is whether that dream can become a reality this September. McPhee has made it clear that he does not want Wilson to be a fourth-line player who is in and out of the lineup when he could be developing in Plymouth.
That means Wilson, a right-handed right wing, would need to beat Joel Ward out of a spot on a third line with Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera.
“I don’t know that we’re evaluating him as much on the ice as we are off the ice,” McPhee said. “We’re checking on his maturity level. How much needs to be explained. We know what he can do on the ice, we’ve seen it. We just want to measure how he’s coming along.”
When the Caps drafted Wilson, it was a clear statement that they wanted to be a harder team to play against. Newly acquired center Michael Latta said he remembers playing against Wilson when he was a skinny but feisty 16-year-old with Plymouth.
“He was a little kid and I was kind of brushing him off,” Latta said. “Now he’s a 19-year-old man, big and tough. He’s s player. He can skate, he hits hard, he plays hard. He’s going to be a long-time pro. I hope one day we can be linemates and have a long journey together in the NHL.”
Latta said he remembers Wilson being “mouthy” but backing it up with an edge to his game that’s hard to find.
“Some guys are born with it,” Latta said, “and he’s got it.”
Wilson said he remembers just how competitive he was when he lined up for a checking drill as a youngster growing up in Toronto.
“I loved it,” he said. “One guy would stand in the middle and there’d be like 10 guys around the outside of the circle and everyone would take a run at him and you’d have to defend yourself.
“I can remember doing it a number of times, so I must have liked it.”
Now in his second Capitals development camp, Wilson finds himself in an unusual role. He’s rooming with 2013 first-round draft pick Andre Burakovsky and on Monday night he made his Swedish roommate his first dish of macaroni and cheese.
“It was actually really good,” Burakovsky said. “He’s a good cook.”
Wilson said his real challenge will come in September, when he hopes to make a lasting impression on Adam Oates and his staff.
“I want to stay here as long as possible,” he said. “Plymouth is a good option, it’s a good organization, but I want to make it a hard decision. We’ll see what happens.”