PLYMOUTH, Mich. - The loss of a pair of key 19-year-old players has the Plymouth Whalers treading water this Ontario Hockey League season.
The perennial OHL contenders are off to a middling 8-12-1 start, putting them fourth in the West Division and eighth in the Western Conference.
What makes this year a down year so far for the defending division champions? Losing forward Tom Wilson and defenceman Connor Carrick a year early to the Washington Capitals is certainly a starting point.
"When you take our best forward and best defenceman out of the lineup, it's difficult to play at a high level," said Whalers coach and general manager Mike Vellucci. "We have a very young team this year with a lot of new players. We've started slow, but we're playing everybody early on."
Wilson was drafted by the Capitals in the first round of the 2012 NHL draft, while Carrick went in the fifth round.
Carrick originally committed to play NCAA Division I college hockey for the University of Michigan, but changed gears after having his OHL rights traded from the Guelph Storm to the Whalers, signing with Plymouth during the 2012 off-season. He's now in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears.
Wilson skated in three NHL playoff games and three AHL playoff games with Washington last spring. He followed that up with a stellar training camp and pre-season this fall with the Capitals, earning the Toronto native a spot with the big club.
"I thought over the summer that making the Caps was a realistic goal for me," Wilson said. "I just wanted to present myself with the best opportunity, work hard and make it difficult for Washington to send me back to Plymouth. Last year in the playoffs, I felt good in Hershey and then when I played for Washington, I think I realized that this is all happening, that I could play at this level."
Vellucci said losing players to the NHL is all part of the job.
"We went into this season hoping to get both Willy and Carrick back, but when guys are able to move on and play in the NHL, my job is done," he said. "I take my job very seriously and just want to help these kids make the NHL as soon as possible. We've also seen other guys recently like J.T. Miller (New York Rangers) and Tyler Seguin (second overall pick by Boston in 2010) come through here and now play in the NHL. As an organization, we definitely take pride in that.
"Willy we knew probably wouldn't be back, but Carrick really improved last year from Christmas on and really got better and better each game. The biggest thing was his confidence level and that came with more ice time. He really developed last year."
Carrick was drafted out of the U.S. National Team Development Program and not major junior, so he could play in the AHL at 19. Normally a 19-year-old must be returned to his junior team if he can't crack an NHL roster.
Wilson said he realizes the Whalers are having a rough go this season, but praised Vellucci for helping him get to the NHL.
"I know this season has to be tough on Mike, but at the end of the day, his job is to get us to the NHL," Wilson said. "The organization has an amazing record of pushing guys to the NHL and when I called him to tell him I made the Caps, I thanked him for getting me here. I know Plymouth is regrouping a little bit right now, but I think they'll turn it around and get it going."
Vellucci said that the OHL is a development league, with making the NHL the long-term goal for all of its players.
"I do take a look at where all of our alumni are these days," Vellucci said. "Someone told me the other day that we have 20 guys in the NHL and another 18 in the AHL. It's fun to turn on a game and watch guys I coached that are now in the NHL.
"Like I said, it's a source of pride and you like to feel like you had a small role in getting these guys to the highest level."