ARLINGTON, Va. -- It is a conversation routinely revisited across all levels of the Washington Capitals organization, from general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates to, in a more casual context, right wing Tom Wilson and his father: How does a team balance the developmental needs of its prospects with organizational expectations?
In Wilson and defenseman Connor Carrick, 19-year-old rookies who are just beginning their NHL careers, Washington is set up for a promising future. But whether that future is near or still a ways away is a decision the Capitals still are wrangling with.
Through three games, results have been mixed.
Wilson is averaging 6:16 of ice time per game in a fourth-line role, but that largely is the product of Washington holding a lead for a combined 6:14 this season and Oates not being afforded the opportunity to roll all four lines.
Undeterred by his lack of playing time, Wilson said he is taking advantage of all available practice time, which he considers a boon to his development.
"I think what makes me better is being surrounded by such talent," Wilson told NHL.com. "You're able to learn how to read off those guys, you're able to learn from them, so it's a lot easier to play in that environment where everyone's top of the line, they're at the highest level.
"You go back to junior, it's a very, very wide range: 16-year-olds that have just come out of minor hockey, guys that have been drafted, guys that haven't that are five years into their league and aren't as motivated maybe. But here, everyone's motivated, it's everyone’s job and everyone's trying to get better. It's kind of contagious."
Carrick, who will sit out Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes, has averaged 13:37 of ice time in three games as half of the Capitals' third defensive pairing. While his poise has served him well, the League's breakneck pace, combined with the sheer size of the opposition, has exposed him at times.
"It's a skill learning to play [fewer] minutes or different rotations and different situations," Carrick told NHL.com. "You get better at it the more you do it, so it's been an experience. I don't think it's too difficult. The more you think about it, the more difficult you make it."
If only Oates could heed Carrick's advice.
How to handle Wilson and Carrick's respective development is something Oates has wrestled with all season. On one hand, sending Wilson back to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League and Carrick with him, or to the American Hockey League (Carrick, drafted after a season with the United States National Team Development Program, is allowed to play in the AHL; Wilson, drafted directly from Plymouth, can't play in the AHL until he's 20) would allow both to play more significant roles while polishing their games.
"If a guy is not getting minutes and that affects his learning, that's maybe not a good decision on our part," Oates said.
On the other hand, Oates has not seen what he referred to as "19-year-old mistakes" from either player and believes that three games is not an adequate sample size to truly evaluate Wilson and Carrick.
What is known is that the balance between what is best for the player and what is best for the team is delicate. The Capitals, like any team, do not want to sacrifice victories to watch two players go through their inevitable growing pains.
Winning, however, can buy Wilson and Carrick more time.
"This team's got to be winning games," Oates said. "The more you win, the more luxury you have of evaluating and experimenting."