Colin Wilson was mad, frustrated, confused and, frankly, pissed off when it came to how he felt about his playing time, or lack thereof, last spring.
From March 17th through Game One of the second round, an 18-game span, Wilson played in just two games – one in St. Louis, where he saw just 9:53 of ice time; another in Colorado, the regular season finale, where he played because the top line was given a night off.
“It wasn’t a good time, for sure,” he said.
As the Predators made one late-season splash after another to acquire offensive help, the team knew some players were going to be squeezed out of the lineup. Wilson is one who was affected, almost puzzlingly. By most accounts he was having a good year (34 points in 66 games through March 15th), but lost his role in crunch time for the second straight season.
Head coach Barry Trotz was tough on Wilson in the media at that time, saying, “How you practice, how you work, if you have details – that will determine if you’re in the lineup.”
When things went south against Phoenix in the second round, Trotz gave Wilson a chance to prove himself. Wilson was arguably the Predators’ top forward in that series, even though he only had one goal in four games. He showed flashes, for the umpteenth time, of how effective he can be when he’s at the top of his game.
But those moments have been too sporadic for Trotz’s and the team’s liking in Wilson’s two-plus years in the league thus far.
“My year-end meeting with everybody was about how I took a lot of steps forward, but at the same time I have to refrain from taking steps back,” said Wilson. “I think losing my role with the players they brought in was disappointing. I could have earned my spot in a better way, but I found myself in the press box. I was very happy with how I responded in the playoffs.”
Prior to returning to the lineup in the second round, Wilson and Trotz had a lot of conversations about how to get the promising youngster back on track.
“It was a lot of trying to stay mentally in check. When you’re not in the lineup, you’re miserable. You’re a hockey player – you want to be playing hockey,” Wilson said matter-of-factly.
“I was not fully content with the decision they made. I think I could have been playing, so when I got taken out of the lineup I was very bitter, very mad, very frustrated. I’m one of those players that shows that with my body language. [The coaches saw that] and they kept telling me ‘We’re not going to put you in until you are better mentally and you stop sobbing around the rink.’”
It wasn’t the first time Trotz handed Wilson a minimal role at an inopportune time, which served as a wake-up call. In the 2011 playoffs, after playing all 82 regular season games, Wilson was benched in the first round against Anaheim before returning against Vancouver in round two.
“It’s a love/hate relationship – a lot of love/hate,” Wilson said of him and Trotz. “Our talks are very constructive. He does talk to me a lot as a young player and there have been a lot of conversations about me getting better. There are times when he comes up to me and says ‘Keep doing what you’re doing’, but as soon as I’m not on top of my game and start slacking, we’re having meetings and talking about what I need to do to get better.
“He has a method and he’s doing it for the right reasons. It’s not like he’s saying ‘I want him out of the lineup’ or ‘I don’t like him as a player.’ He wants me to get better and I realize that.
“There are a little bit of hard feelings and I do still get a little bit mad about it, but you just have to use it as motivation. You can’t dwell on those things. It’s in the past and I have to make sure I don’t get scratched from the lineup this season.”
Wilson admits to getting too comfortable in his role, taking his NHL roster spot for granted. He said that is going to change from this point forward.
“I’m never going to feel comfortable out there in the sense that ‘I’m good now.’ I’m never going to be thinking about that. I will never be taking anything for granted anymore … Your spot is never guaranteed. You have to be at your best at all times or else they’ll find somebody else to play that role.”
As the handful of Predators skated off the A-Game Sportsplex ice Monday morning, Wilson stayed on the ice by himself and spent five, maybe ten minutes doing extra stick-handling and skill-work in tight quarters. It’s a routine he’s done his entire life.
While living in Winnipeg as a child, Wilson’s father built an outdoor rink that he and his friends used.
“It was a huge pond back home. My dad made the outdoor rink and then he snowmobiled a skating path. I’d take the puck and go through the skating path; it must have been a mile long,” he said. “I work on it all the time. I love stick-work and skills, and that’s what I did a lot of growing up.”
Wilson’s father, Carey, played 10 years in the NHL. Carey’s background has rubbed off on Colin, who mentioned his dad was his biggest critic up until about five years ago. The father and son still talk after almost every game.
“When I had bad games he would really rip me apart,” Colin said. “There were some bad drives home there, bad blood in the car. As soon as I made the U.S. national team he started taking a different approach. Now when I have a bad game and I call him he just starts laughing at me because he knows how I am and that I have turned into my biggest critic. He was the same way.”
It was when he was in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program that Wilson realized his lifetime goal of being a professional hockey player was about to come to fruition.
“I was 16 at the time and I made the under-18 team. At the end of that season the draft rankings for my year came out, which was two years away. I was ranked eighth and I was shocked by that because the year before that I had been cut by my Triple-A team in Winnipeg and I was thinking my career was done,” Wilson said.
“In a year span to go from being cut to suddenly being ranked, I had hope and realized the NHL dream was only a few steps away.”
That NHL dream is now a reality, but it has been somewhat of a roller coaster for Wilson. Being left out of the lineup the last two springs is well-documented, but he has also spent a lot of time speaking with a sports psychologist in Boston during the last two off-seasons.
Wilson knows he has a lot of talent, but he’s also cognizant of the inconsistency problems that have slowed his progression compared to others in his 2008 draft class that have already reached stardom. The Predators did not obtain any offensive help to offset the losses of Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, which means Wilson will be staring at a golden opportunity when/if the 2012-13 season gets under way.
Last September, Wilson made it clear he had a chip on his shoulder heading into the 2011-12 season, just months after being benched at playoff time. That chip still remains as he strives to take the next step, opposed to taking another step back.
When asked why he thinks this is going to be his breakout season, Wilson said, “I’m a believer in history repeating itself. For me, every level I’ve played at – the junior team I played on, the first year the game was too fast but the next year it felt easier. I went to college and each year I further adapted. From year to year, everything starts slowing down more. With me continuing to work hard, it’s just going to get easier.”
Wilson, who signed a three-year contract extension in July, is confident that he will be a big factor offensively for the Predators in the years to come. He certainly has the potential to expand well upon the 34- and 35-point outputs in his first two seasons.
That said, he is mindful of having to keep his foot on the pedal at all times.
“I’m never going to feel comfortable out there in the sense that ‘I’m good now.’ I’m never going to be thinking about that. I will never be taking anything for granted anymore.”