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Natural Leader

At a young age, Tom Wilson showed signs of being the player he is today

by Ben Raby @benraby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

Throughout Braden Holtby's career, the Capitals veteran goalie has seen several highly touted prospects introduce themselves to the organization. The routine is similar every year. A teenage prospect arrives at training camp looking to make a positive first impression. The prospect is inevitably humbled by bigger, stronger and faster professionals.

In rare instances, though, there are exceptions.

Tom Wilson, Holtby says, was among them.

"You could see the raw physicality and the skating," Holtby recalls. "But he was also one of those guys that once he got here, even when he was a rookie, you could tell that he was meant to be a captain in this league."

Wilson broke into the NHL as a 19-year-old in 2013. Holtby was struck by the teenager's poise and his willingness to stick up for his teammates.

"He's evolved as a player over the years," Holtby says, "but those intangibles, he had them right from Day One."

Wilson has remained a fixture in the Capitals lineup throughout the past seven seasons. Along the way, the 25-year-old has gradually worked his way up the depth chart going from a seldom used fourth-line grinder to the ideal fit to play alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Last month, Wilson became the youngest forward in franchise history and the third player from 2012 NHL Draft class to reach 500 career games.

"It's been a fun ride," Wilson says. "In the beginning, you just hope to stay in the lineup and contribute any way you can. Five hundred games later, I'm still trying to have the same mentality and have an effect on every game. That's going to keep you playing in a pretty good league, hopefully for a long time."

Having signed a six-year, $31 million extension in 2018, Wilson need not worry about job security.

The 6'4", 220-pound winger is a rare talent, with a unique blend of speed and strength. Wilson is also savvy defensively and has shown a knack for finishing offensively.

"The physical presence is great," says center Nic Dowd, "but I also think that Willie brings a lot of responsibility to whoever he plays with."

Wilson, 25, is well respected by his teammates and he is frequently lauded for the leadership traits Holtby recognized early on.

Holtby still remembers talking to then-goaltending coach Olie Kolzig during Wilson's rookie season, marveling at the on-ice maturity from a kid right out of junior.

"We knew he was meant to be the leader of a team," Holtby says. "And he is. It's not a learned thing. Some people have it and some people don't. Tom has it - his upbringing, the way his parents raised him… on top of his personality and his drive to achieve. If you ask anyone in here, he's the guy that's always bringing the team together."

That's why it has widely been suggested that Wilson could one day have a letter stitched on his sweater and perhaps eventually succeed Ovechkin as the Capitals captain.

"Our young guys in particular, gravitate towards him," says head coach Todd Reirden. "He's more than exceeded expectations in that regard."

To Wilson's credit, Reirden says, the Toronto native has taken advantage of the leaders and mentors around him in recent years including Ovechkin, Backstrom and former defenseman Brooks Orpik.

Thinking back to his rookie season and the start of his NHL journey as a teenager, Wilson also points to several veterans who looked after him like a brother.

Former teammates Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera and Jay Beagle are among those Wilson credits for showing him the ropes when it wasn't always smooth sailing during his rookie year. Without the benefit of any regular-season play in the minors, Wilson concedes there were some hard lessons during his first year in the NHL.

"It wasn't all fun and games," Wilson admits. "There were times where they had to pull me aside and tell me the right way to do things.

"But when you have a bond with your teammates like we had, it makes it easier for them to tell you when you're out of line. There were definitely a lot of those conversations, but that's part of the hockey culture and part of growing up."

Wilson appeared in all 82 games as a rookie, but averaged just 7:56 of ice-time per game and finished with three goals and 10 points. The 2013-14 Capitals ultimately missed the playoffs which made for a trying year for many in the organization. Off the ice, Wilson adjusted to living on his own before eventually moving in with a billet family by season's end.

On the ice, Wilson was asked to fill a void as a bruising fourth-line power forward. That meant going nose-to-nose with some of the game's toughest customers.

"You're going into some rinks where there are some pretty tough characters on the other side," Wilson recalls. "That was tough at some points. I'm trying to play my game and deliver hits or change momentum but that's during an era where there were still a fair amount of [heavyweights] that are men and that had been fighting in the league for 10-15 years. And they were out there to make sure I didn't get too carried away. It was interesting for sure, as a kid to come in and have that role." 

In the years since, Wilson's role has evolved and the Capitals are better off for it. While Wilson remains the same physical threat he was early on in his career, his game is far more polished and well rounded.

In recent years, Wilson has emphasized speed and conditioning during his offseason training so he could play top-line minutes without tiring. He's worked privately with skills coaches to help reach his offensive potential. Three years ago, he began penalty killing. Last year, he started to see more time on the power play.

While Wilson's on-ice maturation has been gradual, the Capitals have long felt they had a unique talent. That's why they were comfortable handing him a long-term deal in 2018. At the time, the commitment to a player that had yet to hit 20 goals or 50 points in a season raised a few eyebrows, but internally the Capitals believed that Wilson would continue to evolve and reach another level.

He answered the bell during the 2018-19 season with career-highs across the board (22 goals and 40 points despite missing 19 games due to injury and suspension). This year, Wilson is on pace to establish new personal bests. Wilson has also averaged north of 18 minutes of ice time per game the past two seasons.

"He's such a big part of our team, of the way we play and the culture both on and off the ice," says T.J. Oshie.

While the Capitals are loaded with high-end talent in Ovechkin, Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Wilson provides a blue-collar element that few on the team can replicate. He has learned, over the years, how to use his strength not just to deliver bone-crunching hits but to create space for his teammates and to win puck battles along the boards and below the goal line.

In his 500th career game last month against the Carolina Hurricanes, Wilson had the primary assist on Ovechkin's eventual game-winning goal. Wilson, as is frequently the case, was aggressive on the forecheck and applied just enough pressure to force Carolina defenseman Jake Gardner into a turnover. Wilson stole the puck and made a nifty centering feed to Ovechkin in the slot. Ovechkin buried it.

"He's one of the leaders on the team," Ovechkin says. "He brings energy, he brings toughness and I think when he's on the ice, the [opposing] team gets a little bit afraid because he's a big boy and he can hit."

If Ovechkin and Backstrom are the faces of the franchise, Wilson, it's been said, is the heartbeat. Just as Holtby predicted back in Wilson's rookie year, he has the rare ability to lift an entire team.

"When I was growing up," Holtby says, "that was the type of player that everyone wanted to be. Obviously the game has changed a lot, but he's found a way to play physical and to still be effective. His complete game brings energy and brings a level of accountability throughout our whole lineup."

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