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Benching gives Wilson a kick in the hockey pants

by Dan Rosen /
Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz wasn't sending Colin Wilson a message as much as he was teaching the rookie center a lesson when he benched him for most of the third period in a game in Washington a few weeks back.

Wilson, you see, was stuck in the mud. He wasn't moving his feet and that's a no-no in the NHL.

"What happens, it's like with any junior player, they take shifts off because they have a dominant skill level and are used to being a dominant force so they can take shifts off and not pay a price for it," Trotz told "The margin of error in the NHL is so slight that you can't afford to take shifts off and that was sort of a wakeup call for him because I don't think anybody has benched him for a while. I told him he wasn't moving his feet and they got two chances to score as a result. It's a one-goal game in the NHL almost every night and it's really important that you don't take a shift off."

Lesson received. And, for good measure, message learned.

Wilson has had his ups and downs since that Oct. 17 game in D.C., when he played only 9:51 and barely at all after the second intermission, but he appears to be on a steady progression as he adapts to the NHL game.

The rookie out of Boston University, Nashville's first-round pick (No. 7) in 2008, is finding his way with the help of a patient organization and a coach willing to take the time to teach him the right way. Wilson's ice time has fluctuated since his third-period benching, going as high as 17:29 in a game at Chicago on Oct. 24 and as low as 9:45 in Nashville's 4-2 win over Dallas this past Saturday night. He scored a goal Oct. 21 in Boston -- in the same city where he played during his collegiate days for BU -- and added an assist in Ottawa the next night. He's also winning better than 53 percent of his faceoffs.

"I think it has been pretty fluid," Wilson told of his adjustment from college hockey to the NHL. "I knew it was going to be hard work and the only thing I was really worried about is people saying how fast it really is, but I worked on that a lot over the summer so speed wouldn't be an issue. I'm out there, not nervous and just making my reads. I was just thinking it was going to be really, really hard, but I definitely have adjusted well. I am confident that I can keep playing in the NHL."

Since he is now 20-years-old, Nashville has the option of sending Wilson to its AHL affiliate in Milwaukee if it sees fit. Anything is possible, but Trotz seems to really like Wilson and appears confident that he'll eventually get it all.

"He's a big body player and he's really intelligent," Trotz said. "He makes plays at a pretty good speed. He doesn't throw pucks away down low. He's able to spin off people and make plays off that."

Trotz compared Wilson to Jonathan Toews in that he plays with tenacity but is able to control his power and utilize his excellent vision.

"He doesn't quite have the speed that Toews has and that's probably why Jonathan will be somewhat more productive," Trotz said. "Toews also got a higher skilled linemate in (Patrick) Kane sometimes, but (Wilson) has a lot of those really good qualities."

Trotz also appreciates Wilson because he is a student of the game.

"He's a sponge," the coach said. "We talk about the difference in college and the NHL and how they play and he really picks up on things."

For instance, Trotz had to talk to Wilson because, as the coach said, "he was getting destroyed in the faceoff circle."

Wilson, who won 55 percent of his 759 faceoffs with BU last season (418-359), won just two of 11 draws over back-to-back games in Boston and Ottawa on Oct. 21 and 22. He said he was trying to overpower the other centerman, a technique that rarely works for a 20-year-old in the NHL.

So, during practice on Oct. 23, Trotz had him work extensively on a new technique and starting with a game the next night in Chicago, Wilson has won 23 of his last 35 faceoffs, including 10 of his last 12. He's 53.4 percent (47-41) on the season now.

"He had this big chopping motion on every draw and we said you're not going to win too many like that," Trotz said. "So we shortened his draw technique so he's quicker and still powerful. We quiz him and say, 'If a guy is going to do this, what are you thinking? He says, 'Oh, I never thought about that,' but it's a chess match and you always have to be ready for something else.

"He's a smart kid, a very type-A," the coach continued. "He takes his craft seriously."

The faceoff thing is evidence of Wilson needing time to adjust to the pro game. Just like he can't overpower other center in the faceoff circle, rarely will he be able to simply overpower guys in other areas of the ice the way he did at BU, where he had 90 points in 80 games over two seasons. But Wilson is finding that his size and strength -- he's 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds -- is at least worth using in the NHL.

"It definitely is," Wilson said. "My first goal, if you watch it, it starts with me pushing a guy (Patrice Bergeron) off the puck, so definitely my strength has helped quite a bit, but I have had to use my skills more to create offense and make plays."

Wilson's offense should start arrive over time, but Trotz wouldn't mind seeing some of it get fast tracked. A few goals here and there will be enough to prove to the kid that putting in the time and effort to learn all these lessons about the NHL is worthwhile.

"It's like a boxer … if you're the heavyweight champ and all of a sudden you get in the ring and you feel that you're not the champ any more, there is a seed of doubt that goes in there," Trotz said. "We told Colin that he's not the heavyweight champ anymore, so you have to learn to box again. You have to learn the tricks and you have to show patience."

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