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Washington Capitals power forward prospect Tom Wilson has come a long way from where he was last year. Some think he’s primed for a roster spot with the big club this season.
There will be lots of factors in George McPhee’s decision to keep Wilson or send him back to the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers. In this post, I’ll take a look at all of them.
The Caps currently have 22 players on their NHL roster with $665,705 of remaining cap space. Most teams (including the Caps) prefer to begin a season with a full 23-man roster. If Wilson were to take the final roster spot, McPhee would most likely have to shed some salary.
Per CapGeek, Wilson’s cap hit is $1,294,167, but the Caps would need to cut only a little over $400,000 to fit Wilson. $200,000 of Wilson’s cap are performance bonuses. Because the NHL has a bonus cushion, teams are allowed to exceed the salary cap by 7.5 percent ($4,822,500) in performance bonuses (by default counting towards the salary cap). This “bonus cap” shouldn’t be concerning for the Caps as Wilson would be the only player on the roster with a performance bonus in his contract. We don’t know the bonus clauses in Wilson’s contract, but it’s unlikely he would earn all of them as they’re typically only earned by the top players. It’s tough to imagine Wilson winning an NHL award or reaching a 20-goal/60-point rookie season. Thus, the cap penalty would be minor or there would be none.
Wilson’s cap hit without the performance bonuses is $1,094,167, which is still higher than that of the players on the bubble for the few last spots on the roster: depth defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Tomas Kundratek, and bottom-six forwards Aaron Volpatti, Michael Latta, and Garrett Mitchell. If McPhee chooses to bring Wilson to DC, the GM would first have to decide Wilson is an upgrade over other players and then he’d have to make roster moves to make him fit.
As of right now, the Caps have four right wingers on their big-league roster: Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Eric Fehr. Placing Wilson in the already clogged line-up could lead to line shuffling and disgruntled players. A solution may have already presented itself: Adam Oates recently told the media he is experimenting with Fehr and Martin Erat at center instead of wing. If Fehr sticks as a pivot, that may open up a spot on the right side of the bottom-six where Wilson could fit.
As a teenager drafted out of the CHL, Wilson can’t be sent down to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears. Contrary to popular belief though, the Caps have the option of assigning him back to the juniors at any moment. If they do it before he plays in 10 regular season games, his entry-level contract would expire in 2017. If he’s sent to juniors after 10 games, one year of his contract would burn, making him an RFA in 2016. Most likely, the team’s management wouldn’t want to waste a year of a first-round pick’s cheap entry-level contract.
It is widely believed that rushing a prospect to the NHL, especially with little ice time or being frequently scratched, is a poor way to develop a player. One of the most obvious examples of that is Nino Niederreiter, the Islanders’ 5th overall pick in the 2010 Draft. After bringing Niederreiter up in 2011-12 instead of sending him back to his junior team, the Isles only gave the youngster (who couldn’t be demoted to the AHL) an average of 10 minutes of ice time through 55 games. Last season, the Swiss wunderkind was sent to the minors and didn’t play a single minute in the NHL. This summer, the Isles traded him to Minnesota for Cal Clutterbuck. As Sean Gentille of Sporting News put it, they were done messing up his development.
George McPhee understands that with a limited number of top prospects in the organization, he can’t afford to spare them in that manner. The Capitals GM has always been patient with his prospects, and we should assume this time will be no different.
“He’s gonna have to play, and can he be effective out there and can he be good, responsible defensively, can he be a responsible player,” McPhee said Thursday about expectations of Wilson coming into the camp. “Can we trust to put him out there every shift and trust that he’s going to be good enough defensively and be able to do something offensively? [Ice time] always goes into the equation. Is six or eight minutes a game going to be enough? I’m not sure.”
Wilson’s destination will be determined by the preseason. “He’s gonna have to show us in the games, this is what training camp is for, show us something,” McPhee said. “And we’re just gonna watch and see, as I said, you’ve got eight games, you’ve got 20 days”.
To fit him into the roster for even just a few regular-season games, the Caps might be forced to make an additional move. It’s yet to be determined whether making space for Wilson would be worth the potential downgrade somewhere else.
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