When the Capitals made Tom Wilson the 16th player taken overall in the 2012 NHL draft, they had visions of Milan Lucic dancing in their heads.
Three years and two NHL seasons later, the 21-year-old right wing is still trying to play his way off of the Capitals’ fourth line.
“There was a little bit of growth with Tom and then there was a little bit of plateau with him, too,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who will sit down with Wilson for his exit interview on Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
“My goal will be pretty simple with Tom. Tom needs to elevate his game. We’ll talk about all those areas of where he can and how he’s going to do it and where we see him needing to get to.
“The good, the bad and the ugly, we’ll talk about all that.”
With Wilson, the good has always been his physicality, aggression and willingness to fight for his teammates.
The bad has been his skating ability, his shot and his reputation [unfairly at times] for occasionally breaking the rules of aggression.
The ugly, well, that’s for Trotz to determine.
Wilson’s average ice time increased from 7:56 as a rookie under Adam Oates last season to 10:56 under Trotz this season. He also improved his offensive totals from three goals and seven assists in 82 games last season to four goals and 13 assists in 67 games this season, improving from 0.12 points per game to 0.25.
But it was his ice time in the playoffs – just 7:44 per game – that underscored Trotz’s lack of trust in Wilson.
“With young guys, it’s easy to get comfortable,” Trotz said. “It’s a great life for a 21-year-old to be in the National Hockey League. He’s very mature for a young man, but at the same time there are expectations where you need to go. It’s no different than Michael Latta or [Andre] Burakovsky or [Evgeny] Kuznetsov. They’re going to need to get to the next level.
“Everybody has made steps. Some guys have made greater steps than others. Willy is one of my favorites I think he’s got a great upside, but at the same time I don’t see him as a fourth-line winger for the Washington Capitals.
“To me he’s better than that. He played in different areas during the year for a reason, so he had more touches. We’re going to have a summer plan for him so that he’s ready next year.
“Hopefully, he doesn’t break his ankle and be behind the 8-ball. I’m not going to massage him. If anything, I’m going to go head-on and say, ‘This is where you need to be.’”
Wilson ended last summer in a cast and spent the first month of the season rehabbing his way back into shape. He said he spent November and December trying to work himself into game shape while learning the responsibilities of playing on a top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
“It’s a lot different,” Wilson said. “It’s more minutes, but it’s also playing against other team’s top players. You go into Chicago and playing against Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane is a lot different than playing against fourth-line guys, a lot more responsibility.
“Obviously, it wasn’t ideal. I didn’t stay there the whole year, but I tried to do whatever I could to help the team and whatever the coaches thought was my role and what I could do best.
“I finished the year with fourth-line minutes, but those lines are important too. We tried to do our best to chip in and get some momentum for the team. At the end of the day you want as many minutes as you can get, but you work with what you have and work hard in practice.”
Even before sitting down with Trotz and his staff, Wilson said he knows there are areas of his game that need to be improved. He said he’ll work on his shot and his hands and his skating. And for the first time in two years he plans on having an entire summer in the gym.
“I think the offseason is huge for me,” Wilson said. “Obviously, last year was a little tough. I kind of got rushed back into the year and didn’t really have the offseason I’d like. It’s going to be really important for me to work hard and make sure my body is ready and work on my game.
“You have lots of time in the summer to work on parts of your game, skill stuff, off-ice in the gym. I’m going to do that and come into training camp with an open mind, and if I get a chance to play those minutes I’m going to be ready for them and try to do the best I can with them.”
Like the rest of his teammates, Wilson said he fully expected the Capitals to be facing the Tampa Bay Lightning this weekend instead of watching them face the New York Rangers. He’s hoping lessons can be learned from the Caps’ seven-game defeat.
“It hasn’t really set in,” he said. “We left it all out there in that Game 7. That was such a tough game. They’re a really good hockey team and a tough team to close out. We were a minute, forty away from closing it out and you’ve got to have that killer instinct and do whatever it takes to have that knockout punch. We know how close we were, so there’s a little bit of regret. It definitely hurts because we thought we had the team to do it.
“Next season is going to be another big year for us. The group might look a little bit different but we’re going to do what we can with that group. We have a good young core with Kuzy and Burkie and it’s going to be exciting to have a new core come up and gain experience.”