Wilson focused on honing role as a pro
Hard-working forward ready to bring toughness and scoring to next level
• Your View: Can Wilson Follow in Prust's Footsteps?
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
A highlight of any young pro hockey player’s career is that first chance to skate alongside veterans who have established themselves in ways the NHL hopeful strives to emulate.
When training camp opens each September, prospects get a unique opportunity to learn from some of their own hockey idols – even if it’s simply by observng how the more experienced players prepare for a season.
Jason Wilson, a 21-year-old forward who signed his first NHL contract with the Blueshirts in May after completing his major-junior career with the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara IceDogs, already knows which veteran he’ll have his eye on at training camp this year and he hopes to pick this player’s brain a bit to learn what he did to become a successful pro.
It turns out that Wilson, chosen by the Blueshirts in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, is a longtime fan of one of the Rangers' hardest-working forwards -- 2010-11 Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award winner Brandon Prust. Wilson couldn’t be happier to have such a role model as he begins his own pro career.
"I look at a player like Brandon Prust, and that's someone I try to mold my game after," said Wilson. "I keep telling people that he's a hard-working guy who had a great year last year. I think if I can keep my role as defined in the way his is, then it will work to my benefit."
Like Wilson, Prust prepped for pro hockey in the OHL, where he established himself as a gritty player who could score. Like Wilson, Prust was also drafted as a 20-year-old and went back for an overage season of major-junior hockey before turning pro.
|Jason Wilson impressed the Rangers scouts with the toughness he displayed at the 2010 Traverse City Prospects Tournament. Wilson was the clear winner in this fight with Carolina prospect Matt Kennedy.|
"We know what Jason's role is, and I think Jason knows what it's going to be in the NHL game someday," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel. "He's a good skater for a guy that's going to play a really high energy and forechecking, finish-your-check, banging game. What he proved for us in drafting him was that he was able to get the puck, which he did a lot, because he does take the body. Where he improved was in what he was able to do with the puck."
Speaking with Wilson, it's immediately clear just how focused a young man he is and just how much he demands of himself.
"I want to play an honest game. There are a lot of guys in front of me right now, so I think I need to play an honest game and keep it simple out there, and stick to my role and not stray away from that,” he said. “... I want to be like a power forward. Someone who can protect their teammates, keep their game simple, drive the net and chip in offensively here and there and also play a good defensive game."
If that self-description sounds a bit like Prust’s style, it’s no coincidence.
When the Blueshirts drafted Wilson, it was largely due to his rugged style of play. Upon his return to OHL last fall, Wilson continued to develop his grit while also showing remarkable offensive flair. He finished with career-highs of 18 goals, 25 assists and 43 points the 2010-11 season -- an eight-point improvement over his draft year.
As an overage player, Wilson's reputation as an OHL fighter was well established, and he had to drop the gloves only eight times during the regular season. In the meantime, he put together eight multi-point games, three 3-point games, a five-game scoring streak in December and five Three-Star appearances.
As good as his regular season was, Wilson saved the best for last with a remarkable playoff performance that helped push Niagara all the way to the OHL's Eastern Conference Finals. He had five goals and 12 points in a 14-game span that saw him earn two No. 1 star honors.
One of those big nights came in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against an Oshawa Generals team that featured fellow Rangers prospect and 2010 draftee Christian Thomas. All of Wilson's skills were on display that night, as he upstaged even Thomas by registering a remarkable Gordie Howe Hat Trick on the road.
Wilson scored Game 4’s first two goals, including the eventual winner, within the first 10 minutes of the opening period. He then picked up an assist on a third-period goal just minutes before his only fight of the playoff run. Niagara ended up winning in a 6-1 rout.
|Jason Wilson got a chance to spend more time with Connecticut head coach Ken Gernander during the recent Rangers Prospect Development Camp. Wilson said he enjoyed working with Gernander and his AHL staff at the 2010 Traverse City tournament.|
Although Niagara’s deep playoff push would end in the next round vs. Mississauga, Wilson could look back on a postseason that would make any OHL player proud. Consistent with his character, however, Wilson demanded more of himself.
"Even though I did end up with some good numbers, I think I could have done better in some ways," he said. "I wasn't fighting as much as in previous years, only because I was older in the league. I did surprise myself a bit, but I had high expectations and I expected a bit more on the point production side."
One of the major reasons for Wilson's OHL success last season was a late September trade from Owen Sound to Niagara. In being traded, Wilson missed out on an opportunity to be part of Owen Sound's OHL championship team, but instead got a bigger role on another talented squad.
"In the end I think it really worked out," Wilson said of the trade. "Even though Owen Sound did a great job this year and it was too bad I couldn't be a part of that, Niagara -- with Marty Williamson as the coach -- really helped my game develop. He's a great coach and I learned a lot from him."
Shortly after joining the IceDogs, Wilson was bumped up to the top line with 2011 first-round draft pick Ryan Strome and San Jose Sharks prospect Freddie Hamilton. He was put there to protect his highly-skilled teammates, but he also showed that he could skate with them and contribute to their offensive success.
"He had scored 17 goals the year before in Owen Sound, but nobody was really looking at him for that even though some of those goals were pretty nice," said Clark. "He was able to improve on that in playing with Strome because you just can't play on the top line like that unless you can skate with them and unless you can think with them. And you need to have the hands to accept a pass or get it to him so he can do his stuff. He was sort of a surprise in that area -- that they stuck with him for most of the year and he was able to keep that role and have a very successful year on a very successful line."
Goaltender Scott Stajcer, a Rangers prospect who was Wilson's teammate at Owen Sound, said he wasn't surprised to see his friend play so well for the IceDogs.
"He can bring speed, and he has a lot of speed that goes unnoticed," said Stajcer. "He's a hard-worker and is in great shape off the ice. He'll have to grind it out and be one of those guys that goes into the gritty areas in pro hockey. He showed at last training camp, he had some really nice goals. He can put the puck in as well every now and again. He's not a goal-scorer by any means, but he works hard and he's a gritty guy that everyone needs and wants on their team. He can fight, too. He's an overall good player."
Wilson's role in Niagara was a big change from his experience at last September's Traverse City Prospects Tournament. In Michigan, Wilson started out with Thomas as wingers on the second line and No. 2 power-play unit. He was put on the fourth line for the team's second game against Carolina, and won high praise from Clark for his physical play, which included a fight against the Hurricanes' Matt Kennedy, an older player and former OHL rival who went on to play a full season in the AHL.
He clearly got the best of Kennedy in their fight at 5:56 of the middle period, and Wilson also had a breakaway chance later that afternoon. He remained on the fourth line for the next game against Minnesota and tournament finale against Dallas, where he scored off a drop-pass from Ryan Bourque in the Rangers' 7-2 rout of the Stars.
|Jason Wilson chats with a fellow NHL hopeful during the 2011 Rangers Prospect Development Camp. Wilson, a forward, is coming off a career year with the OHL's Niagara IceDogs and looks forward to building on that momentum in his first pro season.|
Traverse City was an eye-opener for Wilson, as he learned some of the fundamental differences between the OHL and pro hockey and realized that the jump to the next level might not be so daunting.
"I almost think in some ways it's easier because everyone knows what they are supposed to do on the ice and everyone plays their position perfectly," Wilson said of playing better players. "In some ways it's easier, but the speed was a lot quicker, and so I had to adjust to that."
After the prospects tournament, Wilson joined the Rangers at main training camp for a brief period before being assigned to Owen Sound. Although Wilson was old enough to play in the AHL, the Rangers organization felt he would be better served with an overage season in junior, where he could dominate with increased ice time.
"We talked to him at the end of camp and told him 'We know what you got and we know how physical you are, but now you have some other things to work on, and that's why you're going back'," said Rangers Assistant General Manager Jeff Gorton. "And really, he's done that. He's been able to play with some of the best players in the OHL and contribute and be a big part of that line. He really had a great second half and a good playoff. He was a big part of that team. So it's kind of nice to see that he's worked on his skill and it has gotten a lot better."
A similar return to junior was made by Ryan Callahan five years earlier, and is part of the reason Callahan was able to develop into the player he is today. Wilson is grateful he had the same opportunity.
"I think being sent back to juniors was a good thing for me," he said. "It was a good learning process. I played with two good players in Strome and Hamilton, and I had a role on that team to protect those guys. I feel as if that's the type of role I would play at the next level, so it was a great learning experience for me. ... I'm glad I did it since it helped me develop my game that much more."
Gorton said that what Wilson achieved last year proved that returning him to the OHL was the correct move.
"He could have played at Hartford, but it's an age-old problem where you wonder if it's better for a kid to be playing on the fourth line in Hartford, maybe in and out of the lineup trying to figure out the pro game," said Gorton. "Or does he go back to junior, get in a good situation, play on the top two lines and play on the power play. And I think this is one of the times where we made the right decision."
Like Prust, Callahan is another great role model for Wilson, who has a tremendous work ethic and never stopped believing in himself even after slipping through both the 2008 and 2009 NHL Entry Drafts.
"I think everyone's disappointed if they don't get drafted, but I had high expectations for myself and I'm a bit of a late bloomer," said Wilson. "I didn't necessarily think I would get drafted, but was just hoping a team would give me a chance with a tryout. I think it's worked out for me, but I have a long ways to go."
"Scott and I have been friends for a while, and you meet a lot of great people here, so I was really excited to already know someone with the Rangers organization," said Wilson. "He helped me out with some of the testing and let me know what to expect."
Fittingly, Wilson and Stajcer agreed to terms on their first NHL contracts within days of each other last spring.
"I was really nervous, but it's just a feeling that I can't describe," Wilson said of signing his first NHL deal. "I was so happy that finally some work had paid off for me. Getting drafted was a stepping stone, and signing was another, but making the team is another stepping stone, so I'm working hard for that."
Prust and Callahan both started their pro careers in the AHL, and Wilson recognizes that the road to hockey's biggest stage requires patience as well as hard work. He'll compete with many others for an NHL job at training camp, but is more than ready to pay his dues at the pro level and would be happy to land in Connecticut where he can be reunited with head coach Ken Gernander, who showed great faith in him last year at Traverse City.
"I get along with (the Connecticut coaches) great and I'm excited to be a part of that, so my goal this year is to play for Connecticut, and my ultimate goal is to play for the Rangers one day," said Wilson. "I will do whatever it takes to make that happen."