When Thomas Wilson was drafted by the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in May 2010, the Toronto native had a feeling he was in the right place at the right time.
But after Whalers leading scorer Tyler Seguin was taken with the second pick of the 2010 NHL Draft just over a month later, Wilson realized how this opportunity could shape his future.
"It was perfect for me to be drafted [by Plymouth] because it's the kind of game I play and there's no doubt that Plymouth turns out pros," Wilson told NHL.com. "[Watching Seguin make the NHL jump] helped me put my faith into this organization. There's always that saying, 'Whaler Hockey is hard-nosed,' and that's what they go by: Forechecking hard, backchecking hard, hitting everything and just playing hard-nosed hockey."
Two years later, the 6-foot-4, 203-pound Wilson has reaped the benefits of the Whalers' system and is on the verge of fulfilling his dream of being drafted into the NHL. The power forward is No. 15 in Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2012 NHL Draft.
"I'd be blown away if [Wilson] didn't go in the first round," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "This guy, to me, is going to be a real solid pro hockey player. When you get a big body like that winning puck battles and setting up plays, he gets a guy like [teammate and New York Rangers' 2011 first-round pick J.T.] Miller a lot of extra space. He makes that line go."
Operating on a line with Miller and center Mitchell Heard, the hard-hitting Wilson tripled his rookie-season goal-scoring total with nine in 2011-12, and also had 27 points, a plus-17 rating and 141 penalty minutes in 49 regular-season games.
But those numbers only were a taste of what Wilson had in store for the playoffs. He had seven goals, six assists, a plus-10 rating and 39 penalty minutes in 13 OHL postseason games, complementing his trademark gritty style with a versatile offensive display.
"I was able to re-focus [in the playoffs] because it was sort of like a new season," Wilson said. "We had a couple injuries early on, so I just wanted to work as hard as I could every game. I just tried to give my team everything I had and the pucks started to go in. I started to get confidence and it kind of kept rolling from there."
The Whalers were eliminated in Game 7 of their second-round series against the Kitchener Rangers, as forwards Stefan Noesen (Ottawa Senators 2011 first-round pick) and Garrett Meurs (Colorado Avalanche 2011 fifth-round pick) missed time due to injury in the postseason. However, Wilson was a bright spot for the young Whalers, finishing as Plymouth's second-leading playoff scorer, capped by a two-assist showing in the team's season-ending loss.
Wilson credits Plymouth president, general manager and coach Mike Vellucci as the driving force behind his surge this spring. Vellucci said Wilson's ability to step into high-pressure situations and elevate his game in the postseason is a testament to his player's work ethic all season long.
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"When [Tom] was counted on for offense [in the playoffs], he ended up being our leading goal-scorer," Vellucci told NHL.com. "Tom is very energetic and one of the best body-checkers I've coached. When he comes into the game and makes that first big hit, then the offense clicks from there. He's definitely got the offensive ability, but he's such a good teammate and team guy that whatever role you ask him to play, he'll play."
Vellucci carries a reputation for helping his junior stars make smooth transitions to the NHL. Among the NHL players he's coached are Seguin, Pittsburgh's James Neal and Columbus' Jared Boll. Wilson accepted his coach's challenge of "making his weaknesses his strengths" when he joined the club in 2010, and since has seen first-hand how Vellucci helps his players reach the next level.
"I really give him all the credit as far as my development this year," Wilson told NHL.com. "He's talked to me throughout the whole year, keeping my goal in mind along with what he wanted me to do for the team. He's really tough -- you'd hear that from pretty much everyone that's played for him -- but at the end of the day, he's just looking after his players and trying to bring out the best in their game."
Wilson showcased some of his best talents at the recent NHL Scouting Combine. During the fitness testing portion, he finished in the top 10 in 17 of the 29 categories. Among the more impressive results were fourth-place finishes in the peak power output on the Wingate Cycle Ergometer bike test, which measures top-end skating explosiveness, and VO2 Max test duration, which speaks highly of his endurance and stamina levels.
But even as everything continues to come together for the young forward, Wilson knows his desire to improve on a daily basis will be crucial in his ongoing development.
"I think the biggest thing at events like the Combine is just determination and hard work," Wilson said. "Obviously the tests were the hard part, but it's definitely a relief to get them out of the way. It was a really great experience."
For Wilson, who grew up in downtown Toronto and skated with his brothers on the ice hockey rink his father built in their backyard, the proximity of the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh draws nearer by the day.
But while he knows donning an NHL jersey at the draft comes with great responsibility, he's ready to accept the challenge with open arms.
"There's really no words to describe the feeling I'm going to have on draft day -- no matter what round or team I go to," Wilson said. "I'm looking forward to taking it all in and make the trip with a bunch of friends in my age group. It's really going to be a special few days in Pittsburgh."