"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
On April 26, 2013, Tom Wilson had an assist for his Plymouth Whalers’ on a game-tying goal with just 4:33 in regulation, capping a furious Whaler comeback from a 4-0 deficit to force overtime in Game 5 of Plymouth’s Ontario Hockey League playoff series against the London Knights. Alas, London would score in overtime to eliminate the Whalers and end the junior hockey career for Tom Wilson.
Two weeks later Wilson would find himself dressing for Game 5 of the Washington Capitals’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series against the New York Rangers. Alas, the Caps would lose that series in a seventh game.
On October 1, 2013, just 466 days after Wilson was drafted 16th overall by the Capitals in the 2012 entry draft, he found himself in the Caps’ lineup in the 2013-2014 season opener in Chicago to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. Alas, the season did not end well for the Caps, as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Before you start thinking that maybe Tom Wilson had something to do with the outcomes described above, stop. We mark them only to point out that it has been something of a whirlwind ride for Wilson in less than six months, from competing in a playoff series in junior hockey to doing so on a bigger stage just weeks later to finding himself in the Opening Night lineup in the NHL at the tender age of 19.
Maybe it was too fast, at least the last part about making the Opening Night roster for the Caps to start the 2013-2014 season. That, however, was a strategic decision taken by the Caps due to a lack of a full range of alternatives. Personnel rules dictated that the Caps’ choices were to keep Wilson on the parent roster or return him to Plymouth for a final year of junior hockey. Giving him a year in Hershey to hone his skills with the Bears was not an option.
So, young Tom Wilson got to spend his apprenticeship at the top rung of the organizational ladder. What he did not get as part of this apprenticeship was a lot of experience, at least on the ice in games. Wilson averaged 7:56 in ice time per game. Of 34 rookie forwards playing in at least half of their teams’ games this season, Wilson was 32nd in average ice time. Here is another way to look at that. Wilson skated 651 total minutes this season in 82 games, 24th in total minutes among rookie forwards. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov just above Wilson with 682 minutes, but he did it in just 52 games played (13:06/game).
Wilson, as befits his limited ice time, did not rank especially highly among his rookie forward cohort – 39 in points (10), tied for 41st in goals (3), tied for 33rd in assists (7), 31st in shots on goal (63). There was an area in which he did rank highly, though. Wilson led all rookie forwards by a wide margin in penalty minutes with 157 (24 more than Edmonton’s Luke Gazdic). He was just one minute behind Tampa Bay defenseman Radko Gudas for the top spot among all rookie skaters.
A large portion of that was the product of Wilson’s willingness to stand up for himself and teammates. He was fifth in the league in fighting majors (14). But there was a general edginess to his game that was reflected in his penalty profile. If you look at the penalties of a more violent nature, Wilson has a broad-spectrum resume: roughing (6 penalties/12 minutes), high-sticking (2/4), cross-checking (2/4) elbowing (1/2), boarding (1/2), charging (3/9, including a major penalty), instigator (1/2), and slashing (2/4). Add in a game misconduct and two ten minute misconducts, and a total of 139 of his 151 total penalty minutes (92.1 percent) were the product of his “edginess.”
His apprenticeship was brief in terms of ice time; we did not say it was easy.
Fearless’ Take… How many players did Tom Wilson play more than 100 minutes with this season at 5-on-5? Jay Beagle, Aaron Volpatti, and… uh, that’s it. Beagle and Volpatti. And you wonder how he put up meager offensive numbers?
Cheerless’ Take… Cuz, Wilson played more than five 5-on-5 minutes with 17 forwards this season. Know how many he played with where they had a Corsi-for percentage over 50 percent? Martin Erat and… uh, that’s it. Erat.
Fearless’ Rebuttal… Hold on, cuz. Take a look at Beagle and Volpatti, those two guys he spent most of his time with. With Wilson, Beagle was 49.1 percent; apart he was 41.7 percent. With Wilson, Volpatti was 42.6 percent; apart Volpatti was 28.6 percent (no, that is not a typo). Even Erat was worse apart from Wilson (49.7 percent) than with him (54.1 percent), although you might chalk that up to quality of competition effects.
Game to Remember… November 5th versus New York Islanders. You always remember your first, and for Tom Wilson there were two of them on this night. The Caps were hosting the Islanders fresh off a Gimmick win over the Florida Panthers that got the Caps to 7-7-0, the first time they were at .500 since they split their first two games of the season. The Islanders were feeling fat and happy having won consecutive games for the first time in the 2013-2014 season, the second win coming at the expense of the Boston Bruins.
The teams exchanged the lead several times. New York scored first on a goal by John Tavares early in the first period. The Caps grabbed the lead on goals by John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin, the latter on a power play, 75 seconds apart early in the second. The Isles tied it 17 seconds after the Ovechkin goal, but the Caps took the lead back just 2:12 later on a Marcus Johansson power play goal. Then, just 1:20 after the Johansson goal, the Caps stuck in the dagger.
Wilson started the play when he collected a loose puck in the Capitals’ zone, turned up ice, and backhanded the puck across the ice to Steve Oleksy heading up the right wing. Oleksy carried it to the Islander line, then sent the puck back to Wilson filling in on the left side. With a burst of speed, Wilson leaned hard into the middle, drawing a delayed tripping call from Frans Nielsen as he reached the top of the crease and tumbled to the ice with Nabokov going down to try to seal the left side of the net. Wilson did not give up on the play, though. From the seat of his pants to the left of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, Wilson threaded a pass through the skates of Islander Josh Bailey and onto the stick of the Caps’ Alexander Urbom. From the top of the left wing circle, Urbom wound up and fired a slap shot past Nabokov before he could scramble to his feet, giving Urbom his first NHL goal in almost two years and Wilson his first NHL point.
The Caps made it 5-2 before the second intermission, but there was still one item of unfinished business. With 15:25 gone in the third period Thomas Hickey was sent off for holding Alex Ovechkin. On the ensuing power play the Caps worked the Islanders in their own zone for a faceoff when a puck was deflected into the crowd. On the next draw, Mikhail Grabovski pulled the puck back to Ovechkin who faked a shot and walked the puck a couple of steps down the left wing. He retraced his steps to the top of the faceoff circle, then threw the puck into the middle where Wilson was sliding into the slot. Wilson redirected the puck past Nabokov for his first NHL goal and first multi-point game in the Caps’ 6-2 win. All in all, Wilson had a “Wilson Hat Trick,” a goal, an assist, and a ten-minute misconduct penalty he took with seven seconds left.
Game to Forget… December 10th versus Tampa Bay. On a night when pucks would be flying into nets with alarming frequency, Tom Wilson would barely get a sniff of the action, let alone get in on the fun. The Caps fell behind early to the Lightning, 3-0, just 11:07 into the game. That put a premium on offense for the Caps, and Wilson being as green as he was, head coach Adam Oates super glued him to the bench. The strategy paid off, the Caps clawing all the way back to tie the game with 32.4 seconds left before winning it in the trick shot competition. For Wilson it was a short, forgettable night. Five shifts (only one in each of the second and third periods), 3:17 of ice time, no points, no shot attempts.
In the end…
It is one thing to come up short when presented with opportunities to excel. If this had been the case with Tom Wilson, you might say, “okay, at least it was a learning experience.” But in this instance Wilson logged fewer than 700 total minutes for the season and did it largely with linemates who might have dragged down his performance more than vice versa. Even though Wilson dressed for 82 games it would be hard to say just what the Caps have here. In the limited instances in which he was given more responsibility or more exposure to higher quality teammates at the offensive end he did not look out of place. Consider it something to build on; you’ll sleep better.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America