From last December through June, Kyle Wilson spent a lot of time opening the eyes of the braintrust in the Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears organizations. Wilson picked up right where he left off on Friday, netting a pair of goals and an assist in the opening scrimmage on the first day of Capitals training camp here on Friday. He was also sound in his own end, and was effective in a penalty killing role.
After an invite and perfunctory trip through Phoenix Coyotes camp last fall, Wilson was assigned to San Antonio of the AHL. Seven games later, he was cast aside. He landed with South Carolina of the ECHL soon thereafter, and racked up three goals and five points in five games. Right around this time, the AHL Hershey Bears ran into a bit of an injury rash.
The Bears put out a call for help, and Wilson answered. Loud and clear.
He scored two goals in his first game with Hershey, and he didn’t stop there. Wilson totaled 24 goals and 54 points in 54 games with the Bears, putting up an impressive plus-20 defensive rating in the process.
“I’ve been really fortunate at Hershey coming in and scoring a couple goals in my first game, and then [the same] in my scrimmage here,” says Wilson. “Sometimes the puck just ends up on your stick at the right time, and if you take enough shots they’re going to go in. It was a good start, and hopefully I can keep it going.”
Wilson kept it going last spring, adding seven goals and 16 points in 19 playoff games with the Bears. He finished tied for third on the team in playoff scoring. Having a long and successful playoff run in his first pro season will help Wilson’s development going forward.
“Of course,” he says, when queried as to whether last spring’s playoff run will fuel his future in the game, “especially that Hamilton series. They had such a big, strong, tough team. What a lot of people are saying is that they are more like the defense you see in the NHL. It’s great to have some exposure to that and to learn from it. Hopefully I can take that and get more experience on it and it will help me out.”
A four-year collegian at Colgate, Wilson was a ninth-round choice (272nd overall) of the Minnesota Wild after his sophomore season in school. Minnesota opted not to sign Wilson, and he began his pro journey at this time last year with a visit to Phoenix Coyotes camp.
“It was a lot different situation,” he says. “We didn’t have a rookie camp last year; I went to a rookie tournament. We just played five games and went right into Phoenix’s camp. It was the same type of thing, there were a lot of guys and you just go out and do your best, try your hardest and see what they think of you. That’s what I’m planning on doing here, and hopefully it works out well.”
Despite the rocky beginning, last season worked out well, better than even Wilson himself might have envisioned.
“Looking back on it as a whole,” he begins. “from where I started off at the start of the season on a [professional tryout contract] and not getting much playing time, and where I ended up, I am extremely pleased and I guess you could say surprised with how it ended up. I thought I was going to have a lot longer and tougher haul than I ended up having and have to bounce around to some other places and take a couple of years to hopefully earn a contract. But I ended up in a great situation in Hershey with a great team and a good coach. It worked out well for me.”
Wilson has been in the District for about a week now. He participated in the team’s first-ever rookie camp at Kettler last week, and was also present when the Capitals held their development camp here in July, He performed well in those situations, but he was one of a few rookies who did not look out of place when the veterans showed up for day one of the team’s training camp on Friday.
“Certainly it’s nice to see them make it to the next level,” says Caps assistant coach Dean Evason, who was behind one of the benches for Friday’s scrimmage. “I think that’s what training camp is all about. You see them amongst their own level and what they’ve played at in the past and then once you get into the next level, that’s when you see people being able to keep up with the pace of the games and the practices, and then [other] people drop off. Again, that’s what training camp is all about, whittling it down to the people that belong here and should be here and the people who need to continue to work and develop to get to this level.”
Wilson is able to see and realize what he needs to do in order to achieve his goal of playing in the NHL.
“It’s the same where everyone needs to get bigger, stronger and faster,” he says. “The bare bones things I’ve got to work on are my skating, I’ve got to work on getting bigger and stronger and eventually being a lot faster. It’s a different game. I’ve got to work on my defensive zone play, knowing where to go and learning the systems more so that it just becomes natural. Hopefully I can take the time and get to know it so I can give myself a better shot.”
Wilson is a longshot to crack the Caps’ roster this fall, and a two-goal, three-point performance in a scrimmage isn’t likely to improve his chances of moving up the team’s suddenly center-heavy depth chart. But the 22-year-old native of Oakville, Ont. is expected to man one of the top two lines in Hershey this season. The Caps thought enough of him based on last year’s performance that they signed him to a two-year contract this past July.
Besides attending two Caps camps since July, Wilson’s short summer included hiring a personal trainer and skating and working out with NHLers Corey Perry, Andy McDonald and Brian Campbell. All of his varied on-ice experiences are bringing him much closer to the NHL than he was at this time last year.
“That last year under my belt and the run to the [Calder] Cup finals there against Hamilton [will help],” he says. “The playoff hockey there is a lot more like NHL hockey, so I’m sure that really helped me. Even the rookie camp, gearing up towards it, got me back into game shape and ready to go here so I’m feeling really good.”
Notes: Saturday’s scrimmage and practice will be the final tune-up for the 20 players who will fly to Raleigh on Sunday for the Caps’ 3 p.m. preseason opener against the Hurricanes. Evason talked about the challenges presented by playing a game against an NHL opponent so soon after the start of camp: “There are a lot of challenges. Obviously we want to keep the pace up in the scrimmage, yet we still have to work on some specialty team stuff, which is obviously very important to us here starting the season. And then you want to evaluate at the same time. But with only two days of practice, you want to get your guys ready that we feel are going to be here. It’s tough on some young people to get involved in scrimmages, but it has to be done.”