March 19, 2012

From NEHJ: Nashville's Wilson focused on consistency

By Jesse Connolly

Colin Wilson learned a number of invaluable lessons from Jack Parker during his two years at Boston University, but perhaps one above all else prepared him the most for life in the National Hockey League: Bring your “A” game or suffer the consequences. 

Much like Parker (Somerville, Mass.), Predators coach Barry Trotz expects nothing but the best from each and every one of his players on a nightly basis.

“He’s been good. He’s a lot like Coach Parker,” Wilson said of Trotz’ influence on his development. “There were many times (at BU) where I’d have a great game and the next game not play so well, and I’d find myself on the fourth line. It’s the same thing here. You can’t take a night off or you’re going to pay for it.”

Now in his third season as a pro, consistency has been the element of his game that Wilson, a native of Greenwich, Conn., has focused on the most.

“Coming out of college, when you’re only playing twice a weekend, it’s easy to get up for those games,” said Wilson, who finished off his tenure as a Terrier with a team-leading 55 points in 2008-09. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to mentally stay with it and stay focused throughout the whole thing to have more consistent play.”

After splitting his first season between Nashville and the club’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, the 22-year-old forward is happy with how much he’s grown since turning pro, both on and off the ice.

“I’ve had quite a bit of progress,” he said. “I feel like I’m a much better player than when I started. Off the ice, I’m starting to carry myself a lot different and starting to mature a bit. I’m happy with both.”

Wilson certainly has plenty of reasons to be proud of his on-ice progression. With 29 points through the first 55 games of the season, the 6-foot-1 center was on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points. But don’t expect him to stop and pat himself on the back at any point.

Wilson has learned what happens when one of Trotz’ troops starts to grow too comfortable. The former seventh overall pick appeared in just three of Nashville’s 12 postseason games last spring, as Wilson was made a healthy scratch on nine occasions after a strong sophomore season in the league.

“When you finish in the top four in goals on the team and then you get sat out, it’s really frustrating,” Wilson admitted. “You’re trying to figure out what you did wrong, but that’s just how the game is. If the coaches aren’t liking the way you’re playing, you’re not going to play.”

Trotz and Co. have taught the young forward plenty, but when the coach needed a scouting report on another former Terrier, Wilson was more than game to give him the rundown.

“It was pretty exciting,” Wilson said of learning Nashville was interested in picking up Brandon Yip off waivers. “I was on the plane and coach came up to me and was like, ‘What do you know about this Yip kid?’ I obviously said good things and I was really excited when he came to Nashville. He’s a familiar face and a very good friend.”

While he and Yip undoubtedly benefited from playing in a hockey-rabid market like Boston during their collegiate careers, Wilson believes Nashville has been a great place for him to hone his skills as a pro.

“With the organization the way it is, I think it’s been a good place to start,” he said. “There’s not as much pressure on a young player in Nashville. When I was getting healthy scratched in the playoffs, if I was in Montreal, every day it’d be, ‘What are you thinking? What’s going on here?’ I think with things like that, you can grow on your own and not have the pressure of the media on you.”

After pushing Vancouver, the eventual Western Conference champs, to a Game 6 in the second round last season, and with a Vezina Trophy candidate between the pipes in Pekka Rinne, the hockey world may be forced to turn its focus to Wilson and the Predators this postseason.

“I think we have the team to do it,” Wilson said when asked if Nashville could take the next step. “We’ve got a solid team with four strong lines, lots of depth, good defense and great goaltending. All around we’ve got a really good team.”

Regardless of what the playoffs may hold for the Predators (36-19-7, fifth in the West), Wilson is set to become a restricted free agent July 1. Unlike most players in his situation, he’s willing to admit he’s put some thought into it already.

“Everybody says they don’t, but I know it’s there,” Wilson said. “I know just being a regular in the NHL, unless you’re a 30-goal man, the money’s going to be there so it’s nothing to really worry about. I just have to focus on playing my game. It’s all of the clichés, really. I’m just trying to develop as a player. I just want to make sure I establish myself as a player and keep getting better.”

No matter how cliché his goals or the words of wisdom he’s absorbed from Parker and Trotz may seem, the strides Wilson’s made in less than three years as a pro prove he’s poised for plenty more success.

The stat

Max Pacioretty is on pace to become the Canadiens’ first 30-goal scorer since Alex Kovalev in 2007-08.

Gill dealt to Predators

With his club’s playoff chances growing slimmer by the day, GM Pierre Gauthier signaled the Canadiens would be sellers at the deadline with his first major move Feb. 17. Hal Gill (Bolton, Mass.) was traded along with a conditional fifth-round pick to Nashville in exchange for Blake Geoffrion, forward Robert Slaney and a second-round pick in 2012. 

Gill, an alternate captain for the Canadiens, was in his third year with the club, having signed in Montreal as a free agent in the summer of 2009. He had eight points in 53 contests. The Bay State native played in the 1,000th NHL game of his career in October.

The 6-foot-7 defenseman spent the first eight seasons of his NHL career with the hometown Bruins. Gill has 179 points in 1,047 career games for Boston, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Montreal.

The 37-year-old rearguard took to Twitter
(@skillsy75) to bid farewell to Canadiens fans: “Merci a Montreal. It was a lot of fun to be a Hab. Great organization with great fans. Au revoir!”

Butler on top of things

After overcoming an early-season slump and a number of healthy scratches, Bobby Butler (Marlboro, Mass.) has surged in the second half to re-establish himself with the Senators.

First-year coach Paul MacLean put the former UNH star on the top line in hopes of sparking him. It paid off. The winger began February with six points in his first four games after yet another tour of duty in the press box, thriving alongside All-Star center Jason Spezza.

“It’s great for him personally,” Spezza told the Ottawa Citizen. “He has worked really hard, and now to get rewarded offensively is great for him. It’s also great for the team because it gives us more depth. It’s a testament to the work he did when he wasn’t playing very much, and the time he put on the bike and in practice. His legs are real good right now.”

MacLean has been impressed with how much Butler’s confidence has grown.

“Earlier in the year, at times he was fighting the puck a little bit and would just get rid of it,” MacLean said, “but now he seems to be wanting to hang on to it and having some confidence.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com