Tom Wilson spends his offseasons in his hometown of Toronto, where everyone knows his name and the expectations that come along with being taken 16th overall in an NHL draft that produced NHL future stars players like Olli Maatta, Filip Forsberg and Alex Galchenyuk.
With seven goals and 323 penalty minutes in his first 149 NHL games, Wilson, 21, is keenly aware of the label he’s gotten as a one-dimensional, fourth-line player, and he wants to shake it.
“I think for me I’ve shown I can have the physical aspect of my game,” Wilson said after his third day of skating at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
“You can’t take the teeth out of the tiger. That’s always going to be my nature, to play hard and finish my checks. But I feel great. I had a great summer.
“In the past I’ve been a guy that contributed (offensively). I played top minutes on teams. I’m still young but I think the expectation for me is to just keep climbing up on the roster and play more minutes and accept more and more responsibility.
“I’m a third-year guy now and there’s really no excuses. I should be playing (meaningful) minutes and contributing to the team every night, whether that’s offensively or defensively on a given night. I just need to be able to play my role and continue to help the team. That’s the expectation and I’m not going to accept anything less.”
Three years ago, in his final season with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, Wilson scored 23 goals, added 35 assists, was a plus-36 and had 103 penalty minutes in just 48 games. Many compared him to a young Milan Lucic, capable of scoring 30 goals and racking up 100 penalty minutes as an NHL second-liner.
Wilson began his pro career as a fourth-line player under Adam Oates, playing in all 82 games in 2013-14 while averaging just 7:43 in ice time. Last summer, Wilson broke a bone in his ankle in a fall and sat out the first five games of the season.
And while his ice time increased to 10:56 under Barry Trotz, his production lagged, netting four goals and 13 assists in 67 games.
“I think everyone realized it was a little bit rushed,” Wilson said of his return to the lineup. “I mean, the season was starting and I wanted to get back. Maybe I didn’t have that little extra step that I should have, but it was a good year for the team.
“But from an individual standpoint I feel a lot better coming into this year and that’s what’s expected. Last year I had a half step back and I want to put that behind me and have a good year.
“I don’t want to say there were any excuses coming into last season, but having had that summer and having this summer I’m pretty aware of the difference it makes of putting in a good summer. I feel so much better coming in here. I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m really excited for the year to start.”
During his exit meeting with the Capitals’ coaching staff, Wilson was encouraged to work on his quickness, both with his feet and his hands. He responded by getting on the ice earlier than normal, the middle of July, and worked with a skills coach in Toronto.
Wilson joined a group of NHLers that included Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds, Anaheim’s Chris Stewart, New Jersey’s Mike Cammalleri and San Jose’s Raffi Torres (along with teammates Michael Latta and Justin Peters) and skated every Monday through Friday.
On Wednesdays Wilson worked with a skills coach, flipping pucks over sticks, weaving through obstacle courses and repeatedly catching pucks off the base of the boards.
“I wanted to put in the work so that when I came in here it was second nature,” Wilson said. “You don’t want to be coming in here starting to work on your skills. That’s what the summer’s for, putting in the work.
“Some guys it comes more natural to. But a big guy like me, who maybe it doesn’t come as easy to, there are so many great skill coaches to help with that.”
With newcomers T.J. Oshie (2 years, $4.175 million cap hit) and Justin Williams (2 years, $3.25 million cap hit) penciled in as the Caps’ top two right wings, Wilson is entering the final year of an entry-level contract that pays him $894,166. He likely will begin the season on the Caps’ third line, with the possibility of seeing time on the power play.
He said the skill level of Oshie and Williams was obvious in their first few sessions on the ice and he’s looking forward to what they two veteran forwards will do for the Caps’ chances of winning an elusive Stanley Cup.
“I think we’ve just got to do our thing and not listen to what everyone else is saying,” Wilson said of preseason predictions. “Obviously, people are wowed with the moves we made in the offseason, bringing in two guys like that, with Holtby in the net and a solid D-corps.
“The sky’s probably the limit, but we’re just going to focus in us. Last year there was a lot of pressure with new coaches and this year we have high expectations on ourselves. We’re going to have to start better than we did last year and keep that standard up all year and into the playoffs.”