Caps draft pick Tom Wilson an intriguing blend

Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

With two picks in the first round of the NHL draft, the Capitals had a chance to add multiple players to their farm system. The first was Swedish forward Filip Forsberg at No. 11. A few minutes later, at No. 16, Washington chose forward Tom Wilson, a bruising, 6-foot-3, 203-pound Canadian.

Wilson, 18, played the past two seasons for the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League. He’s a rugged customer known for big hits and the ability to handle himself in playoff-style hockey. Whether he has the skill needed to be a force at the NHL level remains to be seen. Wilson was on Canada’s under-18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last summer. He had nine goals and 18 assists for Plymouth last season.

“[Wilson] can break your body with hits,” TSN analyst Pierre McGuire said on that network’s draft coverage from Pittsburgh on Friday. “He can break your face with punches and he can break the back of the net with his shot. This is a big-time acquisition for a Washington Capitals team – they got a lot of skill guys, but they don’t got a lot of thump guys like this with skill.”

Caps general manager George McPhee remembered watching one of his team’s playoff games this spring and scribbling a note to himself afterwards: “Remember these games when you’re at the draft. Remember how intense they are, how physical they are, how demanding they are. And make sure you get someone who wants to play in that kind of stuff.”

McPhee checked notes with former coach Dale Hunter on Friday morning, who before he took over as Washington’s coach in November had seen a lot of Wilson while coaching his London Knights junior team. The Caps’ scouts like that Wilson scored 41 goals as a midget hockey player in the Toronto area and helped his team win a title. He also responded when injuries in the OHL playoffs forced Plymouth to use him on a scoring line. Wilson had seven goals and six assists in 13 playoff games for the Whalers to catch everyone’s attention. But projecting that at a higher level is risky.

“The scouts wonder ‘What’s the offensive upside?,’” said TSN reporter Bob McKenzie on the network’s telecast. “Probably one of the best open-ice hitters in the draft, one of the most physical players and also one of the best fighters.”

He wasn’t necessarily expected to go as high as No. 16. But, according to reporters who cover the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins, Wilson was liked by those teams’ scouts, too. He needs to work on his skating and overall skill level, according to McPhee. But at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game in Kelowna, British Columbia on Feb. 2, he  blasted Lukas Sutter with a big hit and immediately had to fight defenseman Dalton Thrower to answer for it.

Wilson, who had 141 penalty minutes last season, missed 11 games with a broken knuckle after that scrap before returning late in the OHL regular season. According to McKenzie, some scouts will even throw around the name Milan Lucic, the hulking power forward for the Boston Bruins who is the perfect blend of skill and toughness in the modern NHL. That might be a little much, but the Caps thought he was worth the gamble.

“There’s a chance [Wilson] can be a pretty effective player,” McPhee told reporters in Pittsburgh. “When you get a guy that can play and he’s tough too – it’s a harder and harder thing to find in our game now. But this guy might be able to do it.”

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