ARLINGTON, Va. -- Tom Wilson can't remember exactly how old he was when he began body checking. He just knows he was immediately hooked when it was introduced at a youth league practice.
"I loved it," Wilson said. "One guy would stand in the middle of the circle and there would be 10 guys around the outside of the circle. Then everyone would take a run at him and you'd go around the circle and you'd defend yourself. I can remember it vividly, so I must have liked it. Ever since then, I'm just a competitive kid; I like to work hard and finish my checks and make an influence that way, for sure."
Wilson is one of 44 prospects attending Washington Capitals development camp this week and he arguably is the most NHL-ready of the group thanks to his combination of skill and physicality.
The 19-year-old spent much of last season with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League but appeared in three Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Capitals. Wilson now is eyeing a full-time NHL roster spot in the fall.
"You just want to stay here as long as possible, right? That's my goal," said Wilson, the 16th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft. "You just want to stay and work hard and stick around as long as possible, but I think Plymouth is another good option. I'm familiar there too. I've been there for three years, it's a great organization, so it's two good options and we'll see what happens."
Capitals general manager George McPhee said what happens will be determined by Wilson at training camp in September. Given the recent departures of free-agent forwards Mike Ribeiro, Matt Hendricks, Joey Crabb and Wojtek Wolski, there will be an NHL job available in Washington. The question remains: Is Wilson ready? Or could he use one more year of seasoning in the junior ranks?
McPhee and Wilson each acknowledge there still is room to develop when it comes to skating and adjusting to the speed of the NHL game.
"You have to do what's best for a player's development and that's a decision we'll make in September," McPhee said. "We'll have enough flexibility on the [salary] cap and with our roster to keep him or not keep him. As I've always said, we try to let them make the decisions for us. ... So we'll see what it looks like in September. If he's ready to play, he stays. If he's not, he goes."
A case can be made that the 6-foot-4, 217-pound power forward has outgrown the OHL, where in 60 games last season (regular season and playoffs), Wilson had 32 goals, 75 points and 145 penalty minutes. He was voted the best body checker in the OHL Western Conference for the second straight season in a coaches' poll.
"He's always had that edge to him that you're born with," said Capitals prospect and former Guelph Storm forward Michael Latta, who played against Wilson in the OHL in 2010-11. "He was a little 17-year-old kid that I was kind of brushing off and now he's a 19-year-old man who's big and strong and tough. He's a player -- he does it all. He can skate, he hits hard, he plays hard and he's got good skills. He's going to be a long-time pro."
McPhee said, "He's going to end up being a big player. He's 6-4, 217 right now with 7 percent body fat. That's pretty good. When he's 24 years old he's probably going to be somewhere between 225 and 230. That's a handful."
Including development camp last summer, when Wilson "didn't know anything," the Toronto native has had four opportunities to impress Capitals management (two development camps, NHL training camp last January and his NHL debut in May), and the consensus is that a full-time NHL job is within reach.
Wilson does not turn 20 until March 29, which means that the American Hockey League is not an option next season. It's either the first-class life of the NHL or back to playing against teenagers at the junior level.
"It's a tough decision because he's a rare person that's a very mature guy for his age," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "It's weird. He looks even bigger than last year and he got to play in the playoffs last year, so this [development camp] almost feels like a demotion for him playing here, but it's good to have him here, good to see him and the enthusiasm, and you have to remember that he is still young because he looks so much more mature."
Wilson may come off as one of the more mature and polished prospects at development camp, but the true test comes in September. If Wilson continues to impress on and off the ice, there could be a place for him Washington in October.
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