Saturday night’s debacle against Colorado marked the fifth game of the season for the Caps – and, perhaps more importantly, it marked the fifth game in which Tom Wilson was in the lineup, bringing him past the halfway point of his evaluation period. Should the team decide to send him back to the OHL, they only have about a week to do so (provided he stays in the lineup for the next four games) without ticking off a year of his three-year entry-level contract; keep him around for that tenth game and beyond, and that first year is burned.
In other words, the Caps are officially on the clock.
So what exactly have we seen from Wilson so far? Well... not a whole lot, really. The surface numbers through five games:
That's a lot of zeros.
He's certainly playing up the physical aspect of his game, which is something - through five games he's got fourteen hits, same as Alex Ovechkin, and logged his first regular season NHL fight earlier this week, an eye-opener against Calgary. He's also not dragging down his line in terms of possession; the opposite is true, actually, whether it's in all even-strength situations or when the score is close (although with such a small sample size, an extreme game in either direction could make a huge difference).
Really aside from the lack of scoring it's hard to say he's not doing what he's being asked to do... but at some point the team needs to ask, and expect, more from him, and with limited minutes and a limited role you're generally going to see limited output. His ice time has actually been closer to the six-minute mark most nights, his average skewed slightly by Saturday night's game when his ice time ballooned to a whopping 7:57. The team may be easing him in but the fact is that only 6 of the 63 players designated as rookies in the NHL have logged less ice time per game, and only two of those have played as many games as Wilson. Almost all of that has been at even strength, as well - he's logged a grand total of seven seconds on special teams, edged out only by Nate Schmidt and his one game for the lowest total on the team.
So what exactly is the team doing with him - and what, if anything, will they do going forward?
It's plain to see that, like with Connor Carrick, the Caps believe Wilson has outgrown the OHL; unlike Carrick, however, they can't just send Wilson to Hershey for further development and more ice time (which is unfortunate, because that's probably where he should be). It's understandable to a point, as is the fact that they don't want him picking up bad habits in a league in which he's head and shoulders - often literally - above the people he's playing with and against. On some level it might be better for his development to get limited minutes at the highest level than to be stuck as a man among boys in Plymouth.
But outgrowing the OHL and being ready for the NHL are not the same thing, and right now he seems to be caught somewhere in the middle - which means he's taking up a roster spot, and getting minimal minutes doing so, on a team with aspirations toward rolling four lines on a nightly basis. His development aside, the team has to come first and it doesn't feel like that's happening at the moment. He's done what has been asked, and injected a fair amount of snarl into the lineup that frankly has been missing in the past, but so far there's just not enough up-side to Wilson's game, yet, to say he's a better option night-in, night-out than someone else - and maybe even someone they've recently traded away to make room for him.
The window is still open to send Wilson back to Plymouth, of course and there's a chance they do just that - which probably wouldn't be such a bad thing, risk of bad habits and all. But if they truly believe he's NHL-ready and are simply easing him into the lineup, it might be time to take the training wheels off and really see what he's got. Slow-playing him to get him used to the NHL is fine, but they're going too slow... and frankly any claims about not wanting to overwhelm him would be more believable if they hadn't called him up last spring right in the middle of the pressure-packed, high-intensity and hugely important playoffs.
The reality is that giving him six to seven minutes a night isn't going to do anything for him or the team, and it's not going to get results out of a fourth line that is, right now, pointless - in more ways than one. He's certainly not the cause of the Caps' on-ice issues (heck, he's hardly the most curious case on the fourth line), but he is an off-ice concern as far as his contract goes... and the clock is ticking.