When the Caps kicked off training camp just under two weeks ago, they did so with a number of questions facing them and a number of available bodies for just a limited number of roster spots. There were plenty of storylines to go around; the arrival of Mikhail Grabovski alone was big enough to fill column inches and blog posts for the remainder of camp (to say nothing of his visa issues that delayed his arrival early on).
Amid all of the storylines and roster battles, however, one stands out as particularly interesting – and that’s the impact of teenage attendees (and Plymouth Whaler teammates) Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick.
Wilson, of course, was expected to factor into the decision-making process this fall, albeit as something of a long shot to make the big team. But his situation and the limited options available to him after camp concludes has made his presence especially intriguing; do the Caps keep him around, give him minimal ice time on a third- or fourth-line role and potentially have to move a veteran out? Or do they send him back to the OHL, where he’ll surely dominate but could be prone to bad habits? Do they feel he’s ready to start his NHL career at the young age of 19, or would he be better served by getting a bit more time to develop in Plymouth?
The questions are all relevant ones – but the reason we’re asking them in the first place is because he’s forced us, and the Caps' brass, to do so. While Wilson clearly made enough of an impression on the Caps last fall and throughout the season to warrant getting a call-up during the playoffs, his performance in this year’s camp has provided a pretty clear picture of where he’s at in his development, and the path he’s on appears to be promising. Although given limited minutes (just over seven minutes a game) he’s got two goals in four games, and more importantly hasn’t looked out of place among the NHLers he’s faced or the ones with whom he’s played. He even has a fight under his belt (although really, who doesn’t this preseason?), taking on Chicago’s Kyle Beach last week.
If Wilson was expected to stick around for most of camp, the same can’t necessarily be said of Connor Carrick, who at two weeks younger than Wilson is the youngest attendee left on the roster and one of the pleasant surprises of this year’s preseason. The 2012 draft pick has seen his stock rise over the last year, finishing last season as one of the OHL’s top-scoring blueliners and capturing a gold medal at the World Juniors back in December. It’s his work in camp that has impressed the most, however, capping off an overall solid preseason performance with a standout game against Boston last night – one that saw him not only score a goal, his first, but also log over 26 minutes of ice time in the overtime loss.
Like Wilson, Carrick’s ultimate destination is also unknown, although unlike Wilson he has a few more options available (as a USHL draftee he has the option to go to the AHL or ECHL instead of the OHL). But he, too, is making the decision difficult for the team – what almost certainly started as a one-way ticket back to Plymouth at the conclusion of camp is now a bit more open-ended, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he ends up in Hershey’s camp very soon (or even sticks around in DC). Not bad for a kid who just signed his first entry-level contract.
We’ve noted how long it’s been since the Caps have had a 19-year-old make an offensive impact on the team, going back to Scott Stevens – and while there's nothing saying that it won't be another thirty years before someone else does, the fact that the two of them have made the impressions they’ve made at such a young age, and forced the tough decisions they’ve forced, is nothing but positive. Both would perhaps benefit from a bit more development, which is fine. The Caps don’t need them to be NHL-ready while they’re still in their teens, and it hasn’t been the team’s M.O. in recent years to rush players into that role before they’re truly ready... although if the team thinks they're ready, it wouldn't be out of character to see them in the NHL sooner rather than later, either.
For now just knowing that they’re both on the right path, and seeing them step up this fall, is enough – and a good sign for the future.