During the first half of the 2013-14 NHL season, the Washington Capitals have been the epitome of inconsistency with no real rhyme or reason to the sudden changes. During these repeated bursts of hot and cold streaks, the Capitals have shuffled the roster repeatedly, seen Philipp Grubauer become the undoubted No. 1 goaltender and dressed 27 different skaters, and their 21-16-6 record is a good symbol just how average the team has been.
Through all of this Washington has seen Tom Wilson become a stalwart on the fourth line in the process of becoming the team’s undoubted enforcer. While Wilson has fit into the type of physical role that any successful NHL team needs, it should be questioned whether he truly should be in Washington at this point.
At 19-years-old there is no doubting that he is not done improving both physically and mentally, but by being consigned to a fourth line role it is hard to imagine this improvement reaching its full potential in the near future. As a big and physical guy it is clear that Wilson can fill a bottom-six forward role, but when watching him work in front of the net and with the puck one also sees that he has the potential to develop into a top-six forward.
Thus far in 2013-14 Wilson has compiled four points and averaged a lowly 7:02 on the ice per game, which ranks last of any player that Washington has fielded for even one game this year. Sure he has played in each of the team’s 43 games and leads the Capitals with 85 penalty minutes, but he really is not developing at all. Of course, developing when you aren’t playing is truly impossible, so nobody can blame the 19-year-old for seeing his development stagnate.
Instead of continuing to allow him to languish on the bench, the Capitals should send Wilson back to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. Playing in this environment would allow the forward to develop his finishing ability in front of the net, leave the day-to-day pressure that is associated with playing in the NHL and receive the innate development that is associated with actual game time.
Of course junior hockey is nowhere near the level of the NHL, but development is often more about repetitions than the level of play you are going up against. For Wilson, simply being a fighter off the bench is not providing him with any of the skills and experiences that will allow him to potentially develop into a top-six forward. In Plymouth it can be assured that he will play in any situation he would ever want and will be better off for it.
When it comes to the Capitals’ outlook for the remainder of the 2013-14 season it is clear that sending Wilson to junior hockey will not truly hurt in any way. The team must only look to their AHL affiliate — the Hershey Bears — to see that Dane Byers is waiting in the wings as an enforcer. Sure, he may not bring the youthful exuberance to the locker room that Wilson has, but on the ice there is no way the team will feel little impact from replacing one enforcer with another.
Ultimately sending Wilson back to Plymouth may seem like a rash decision to some, but in the long run it will serve the Capitals well. The youngster will be able to develop at a reasonable pace and come back to Washington either later in 2013-14 or at the start of the next season as a true impact player, both physically and as a scorer.