Is Tom Wilson The Missing Piece?

Greg Fiume

Comparing Tom Wilson with Bruin bruiser, Milan Lucic, and a look at the impact his arrival in D.C. might have on the organization.

For the second year in a row, Tom Wilson has been invited to Capitals training camp, and this year he has made a splash.

On Friday night, after a pre-season loss in which Tom Wilson, donning a Capitals sweater, skated 11:26, scored a goal, and dropped mitts with Kyle Beach (Chicago's own 6'3" first round draft choice from 2008), the Capitals captain had some kind words for Wilson.

After the loss, Alex Ovechkin told NBC Washington's Adam Vingan, "[Tom Wilson] is tough, man. He's gonna be a great player. Kind of piece we've been missing."

It's plenty possible that Ovechkin was just quote-watering the aftergame bouquet of microphones. But if you're inclined to take up your scalpels, pins, and forceps and get to dissecting this statement, it's interesting because the captain is making two assertions here: first, that this team has been missing something, and second, that Tom Wilson is who they have been missing.

But Ovechkin isn't the first one to sing praises of Wilson. Adam Oates has compared the top prospect to the likes of Eric Lindros, Jarome Iginla, and Cam Neely (who Oates played with).

Listed by the Capitals at 6'4" and 210 pounds, Wilson is built in the mould of Milan Lucic (6'4", 220 lbs)— a comparison the Washington faithful have been hearing since draft day 2012. But unlike many comparisons of this nature, the similarities continue beyond stature. Lucic came into the NHL with the Boston Bruins when he was nineteen years old, putting up 8 goals, 19 assists, and 89 penalty minutes in 77 games. When Lucic was 17 and 18 years old he played for the Vancouver Giants in the Western Hockey League, combining in two seasons for 39 goals, 48 assists, and 296 penalty minutes in 132 games played.

Let's take a look at what Tom Wilson did in the OHL at that same point in his career. When Wilson was 17 and 18 years old, he played only 97 games with the OHL's Plymouth Whalers, lighting the lamp 32 times, notching 53 helpers, and staring through the penalty box glass for 245 lonely minutes.

Interestingly, Lucic and Wilson saw very similar improvements in their boxcars from their 17-year-old campaigns to their 18-year-old counterparts. Eighteen-year-old Lucic jumped from the 9 goals and 19 points (0.306 PPG) of his previous season to 30 goals and 68 points (0.971 PPG). Eighteen-year-old Tom Wilson improved on his 9 goal, 18 assist (0.551 PPG) campaign with a 23 goal, 35 assist (1.208 PPG) year.

While the surface numbers show that Wilson was a bit more prolific in juniors, the compelling bit here is that Lucic and Wilson's progression from their 17-year-old season to the next is almost identical. Lucic saw his points-per-game improve by 0.665. Wilson's was bolstered by 0.657. Uncanny. It's also worth noting that Milan Lucic was that missing piece - or at least a major piece - in the Bruins' Stanley Cup-winning puzzle in 2011... and again in last year's Stanley Cup-losing one.

But enough with the comparisons. Tom Wilson is not Milan Lucic, and prefacing his career with comparison only establishes the basis for unfair expectation. He is Tom Wilson, and he will be Tom Wilson, and we're fine with that.

There are a few obstacles to getting this would-be missing piece on to the lineup, however. For one, his approximately $1.3m cap hit doesn't fit under the cap (though it will only be a $900k cap hit, with any bonuses he may hit going under a separate category). Wilson has three years remaining on his entry level contract. If he makes the roster, the unproven 19-year-old will command a larger cap hit than Steven Oleksy, Tomas Kundratek, Jack Hillen, Aaron Volpatti, Jay Beagle, and Mathieu Perreault. It's a hefty hit for an unproven teenager, but that's part of the package with first round draft picks, and if the organization feels that Wilson is already prepared for the bright lights at this early stage in his development, we're not complaining.

Second, the Capitals' forward ranks are crowded, and especially on the bottom two lines, which is where Wilson would presumably fit in. Conventional wisdom would lead one to surmise that if Wilson is included in the big club's plans from the upcoming season, then a guy like Mathieu Perreault or Joel Ward (and his $3m cap hit) probably is not.

Reading between the lines, one notes that Adam Oates's latest mad scientist experiment is moving career winger Eric Fehr to center, and that in four preseason games, Perreault has seen the ice in only one. Granted, there is no guarantee that Fehr pans out as a center, but if last year taught us anything it should be to take faith in Oates's sometimes unconventional lineup vision. Heck, even that Joey Crabb / Beagle / Ovechkin line served its purpose in the end.

In any event, it seems like the organization is preheating the oven for Wilson's arrival - what that will truly entail is anyone's guess. After Mikhail Grabovski was brought in, it became evident that the Caps' third and fourth lines would possess something of an unconventional makeup in terms of their offensive clout. Wilson, housing all the qualitative characteristics that you find in the grinder's lexicon ("grit", "toughness", "mettle", "motor"), would certainly contribute to regulating a checking line.

George McPhee has already made one move that has drastically improved the Capitals opening day lineup. With just eight days left until opening night, Caps' faithful won't have to wait long to find out if he's got another up his sleeve.

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