By: Ben Raby (www.twitter.com/benraby31)
ARLINGTON, Va. - Sometime after a late September win in Kingston, Ontario, word began to spread on the Plymouth Whalers team bus.
"I texted a couple of my teammates," Capitals rookie Tom Wilson recently recalled, "just told them the news and they all seemed pretty excited."
Wilson spent three years with the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers, but the 19-year-old texted "the boys" on this night to let them know that he and his one-time Whalers teammate Connor Carrick, had made the Capitals' opening night NHL roster.
The news eventually made its way to the front of the bus, where Whalers general manager and head coach Mike Vellucci had nearly eight hours to take it all in.
"Obviously they would make our team a lot better if they came back," Vellucci said in a telephone interview, "but my job is to get these guys to the next level as fast as possible and to teach them to play the game the right way...They've both worked extremely hard and they deserve the opportunity so I’m very proud of them."
Vellucci has been the Whalers general manager since 2001, grooming prospects such as Jared Boll, James Neal and Tyler Seguin as well as Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth, who won an OHL title with Plymouth in 2007. But never, until this month, had Vellucci seen two of his own teenage players graduate to the pros together and make their regular-season professional debuts with the same NHL club.
"I can't imagine that too many (junior) teams have had that happen," he said. "It's unique but it's cool. It's a proud moment for our organization and it makes me proud that I had a little part in helping these guys get to the next level."
The Whalers' regular-season began Sept. 20, but Vellucci kept tabs on the Capitals' preseason and monitored Wilson and Carrick's progress throughout training camp.
"They didn't go in the back door," he said. "They went in the front door and proved that they deserve an opportunity to play professionally."
Vellucci was particularly impressed with Carrick’s play during a Sept. 23 preseason game against the Boston Bruins. Carrick signed his entry level contract that afternoon, before skating a game-high 26:15 and recording his first career NHL preseason goal later that night.
"He texted me when I signed," Carrick said, "and then he congratulated me for opening up on the one-timer (on the power play goal) because that was something that he harped on quite a bit (last year) so he took credit for that goal and he can have it."
Carrick and Wilson were the subject of tweets from Vellucci on the eve of their NHL debuts last week and while neither player is expected to return to Plymouth this season, the support from their junior club hasn't gone unnoticed.
"They're really proud of Willie and I so far, and especially for (Vellucci) who had two guys stolen from him, it means a lot. But that's why he does what he does. He loves moving guys on and he's really good at it. He's a great coach and he was so good for me and what I needed (last year) and I'm very grateful for Coach Vellucci."
STILL ROOM FOR GROWTH:
According to Vellucci, what Carrick needed at this time last year was a combination of confidence and a better understanding of game management.
"He needs to know when to move the puck and when to join the rush at the appropriate times," Vellucci said. "He needs to know how much time is left in the period or a game and he really improved on that last year. We worked on that a lot- just on timing issues and clock management and he did a great job. He's a sponge, he wants to learn, he wants to get better and he wants to learn the pro game."
As for Wilson, Vellucci is hopeful that more confidence and self-assurance can produce a more polished offensive game for the 6-foot-4, 215 pound power forward.
"He likes to play the body and play a physical game, but one of the things I worked on with Tom was to be more offensive. I don't view Tom as just a fourth line guy; I view him as a guy with offensive ability but sometimes he’d get lost in a game and just want to be physical. So we talked to him quite a bit about trying different things to be more offensive."
Wilson's offensive numbers increased in each of his three years in the OHL, culminating with 23 goals and 58 points in 48 games last season. Vellucci is hopeful that Wilson will continue to put into practice the offensive lessons he was taught in Plymouth.
"What I mean by that is instead of going through guys, we tried to get him to go around them. He’s got a great a shot so we encouraged him to shoot more. When the game is on the line he produces and I give him a lot of credit because he worked a lot on his skill, he worked a lot on his hands. He didn't tear up our league in the offensive way but he did work on his skill and he improved a lot in that area."