Reporting David Elfin
A year ago, Tom Wilson was the wide-eyed, 18-year-old first-round draft choice looking to get the hang of pro hockey from Washington’s new coaching staff.
This week, with three NHL playoff games on his resume after spending most of last season with Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League, Wilson is the (relatively) experienced roommate trying to make 18-year-old first-rounder Andre Burakovsky feel at home during this week’s Capitals development camp.
“He made me some macaroni and cheese, we don’t have that in Sweden,” said Burakovsky, praising the Toronto native’s cooking.
Of course, it’s on the ice where the Caps hope that Burakovsky, a highly skilled center who needs to add some strength to his 6-foot-1 frame, really follows the feisty 6-3, 215-pound Wilson’s quick ascension to Washington’s lineup.
“It’s a very big moment for me to be here,” Burakovsky said. “The Caps [are] one of my favorite teams so I’m really proud to be here. It feels really good to have the jersey on, but so far, I’m not an NHL player, I’m just a drafted guy.”
Wilson felt the same way last July.
“I knew no one,” he recalled. “I knew nothing about the organization, really. A year later, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been here multiple times and gained a lot of experience. It’s definitely a different feel.”
Burakovsky hopes “I’ll be like [Tom] someday.” Of course, Wilson never expected to advance as far as he did last year, terming his rise from juniors in March to Hershey of the American League in April and Washington in May, “a huge surprise.”
That’s what Nate Schmidt would like to be when training camp opens in September. The 21-year-old defenseman, who’s skating in his second straight Caps developmental camp, finished last season at Hershey after completing his final season at the University of Minnesota where he was a Western College Hockey Association All-Star and the Golden Gophers’ MVP.
Dmitry Orlov, a Caps regular at age 20 in 2011-12 before spending most of last season in Hershey, is the early favorite to replace the departed Jeff Schultz on Washington’s blue line. Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson are sure of spots among the top six defensemen with John Erskine, Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy also returning. Tomas Kundratek, who didn’t play after March 14, Tyson Strachan, signed as a free agent from Florida, and Cameron Schilling are also in the mix.
“I’m a lot more relaxed,” said Schmidt, who used not being drafted out of high school in St. Cloud, Mn. as motivation to improve. “I don’t have the young guy jitters [I had last year]. I had a great experience in Hershey. I learned to read plays a little better and got used to the system [employed by Caps coach Adam Oates]. I want to contend for a spot in the top six. I think there’s a spot there for me, I really do. I can provide some more offense on the left side, jump up in the play … make good plays and bring a lot of energy.”
Wilson certainly brings energy. He described himself as a hard worker and a character guy who’ll fill any role he’s asked to. That sounds like Matt Hendricks, who signed with Nashville as a free agent. Wilson will compete with Aaron Volpatti, signed off waivers from Vancouver in February, and 22-year-old Michael Latta, who has yet to make his NHL debut, to replace Hendricks on the checking line.
“I like to finish my checks,” said Wilson, who retains vivid memories of his first body checking practice as a pre-teen.
While Wilson relishes getting physical with opponents, Burakovsky’s game is all about what he can do with the puck.
“I want to show the coach and the GM that I have some skills that not a lot of other guys have,” said Burakovsky, who wants to follow the examples of fellow Swedish forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson who reached Washington a year after being drafted in the first round. “I’m really good with the puck, skating well, goal-scorer, make some good passes. I hope I’ll be a Cap in maybe [a year or two]. That’s one of my goals.”
Having been shut out in the final two games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals by the New York Rangers, whom they had led 3-2, the Caps can use all the goals that Burakovsky and Co. can provide.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin