“The past is a stepping stone, not a millstone.”
-- Robert Plant
For a player who will not turn 22 years of age until the 2015-2016 season is winding down next spring, Tom Wilson has already gained a reputation for being, if not quite an “enforcer” in the old meaning of the word in hockey, then certainly one of the NHL’s most physical players. In his two seasons in the NHL, Wilson has more penalty minutes (323) than all but two players – Steve Downie (344) and Antoine Roussel (357). Only three players had more fighting majors than Wilson (26) – Cody McLeod (31), Brandon Prust (27), and Derek Dorsett (27). If he has a signature moment in his young career, it is probably this one, a hit on the New York Islanders’ Lubomir Visnovsky in the second period of Game 4 of the Caps-Islanders first round playoff series last spring. The Caps went on to win that game, 2-1 in overtime, Visnovsky was lost to the Islanders for the remainder of the series, and the Caps advanced to the second round in a seven-game win:
As to Wilson’s offensive talents, he is a work in progress. A 16th overall draft pick in 2012, Wilson is fifth in his draft class in regular season games played to date (149). However, he ranks 14th in goals scored in his draft class (7) and 11th in points (27). Wilson did improve his point total in 2014-2015 from the previous season, jumping from ten points to 17.
On the other hand, Wilson spent the largest portion of his 5-on-5 minutes last season (718) with Nicklas Backstrom (326) and Alex Ovechkin (322). And it was with that pair, either individually or together with Wilson, that Wilson did most of his offensive damage. He was 2-9-11 when on ice with either Ovechkin or Backstrom (2-8-10 when both were on the ice with him).
Wilson had a bit of an odd set of outcomes in 2014-2015. He was one of just ten players in the NHL who had at least 100 penalty minutes and at least 15 points. He also accomplished that odd double in the fewest on-ice minutes among those in that group. All those minutes with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom seemed to do wonders for his possession numbers, too.
Consider this; in 2013-2014, Wilson spent the largest share of his 5-on-5 minutes (639) with Jay Beagle (274) and Aaron Volpatti (248; numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com). His Corsi-for percentage on ice at 5-on-5 was 45.0 (numbers from war-on-ice.com). Forward to 2014-2015. There were those minutes spent with Ovechkin and Backstrom referenced above, and his 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage for the season was 52.6. Whether it was improvement as a result of having a full season under his belt, better linemates, or a combination of factors, there was that improvement, even if his production numbers (four goals, 17 points) didn’t pop.
Here’s an odd fact. The Caps were just 1-3-0 in games in which Wilson scored a goal. However, they were 9-1-2 in games in which he had an assist. He did not have a goal against a team that reached the playoffs and was 0-6-6 overall against playoff-eligible teams. The penalties were a problem. In games in which Wilson took at least five minutes in penalties, the Caps were 7-6-2. And it was not as if fighting was a consistent momentum changer; the Caps were 6-4-2 in games in which Wilson had a fighting major.
The Big Question… Can Tom Wilson handle a top-six role?
Tom Wilson is not going to be a default option on a scoring line to start the season, if things go as planned. The first and second right wing spots are penciled in for T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams for the time being. However, Wilson did skate those large blocks of time with the Backstrom-Ovechkin duo last season, and Wilson was not a possession anchor. At 5-on-5 Backstrom had a 54.0 Corsi-for percentage with Wilson, 53.9 when apart. Ovechkin was 53.7 percent with Wilson, 53.6 when apart (numbers from stats-hockeyanalysis.com).
Looking at the situation in reverse, Backstrom and Ovechkin spent just over 1,000 minutes together at 5-on-5 last season. However, Backstrom skated at least 100 5-on-5 minutes with Marcus Johansson (350), Wilson (326), Andre Burakovsky (213), Troy Brouwer (181), and Jay Beagle (107). Even with Oshie and Williams slotted to be the scoring wings on the right side, Brouwer’s departure, and Burakovsky perhaps getting time at center as the season wears on could mean Wilson will get some opportunities to fill in on the right side on one of the top two lines.
In the end…
It would be easy to look at Tom Wilson’s year last year and think he started strong (nine points in his first 19 games) and finished less so (eight points in his last 48 games). But keep in mind that every one of those nine points to start the season was recorded with both Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the ice. Four of them were recorded with Backstrom and Ovechkin getting the other points on the scoring plays, four of them with either Backstrom or Ovechkin getting a point on the scoring play. It was not prolific, but it was promising.
As it is, Wilson will likely start the season on the right side of the third or fourth line. One would think that in this, his third season – especially if he is being given third line minutes with the occasional move up the ladder – he will be less an agitator and more aggressive on offense. He could get more opportunities all around. His average ice time was up three minutes from 2013-2014 (7:56) to last season (10:56), all of it at even strength. He might not get much time on the power play – even though he is a right-handed shot, so are T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams on the right side – but he might get some additional time on the penalty kill.
So far, Tom Wilson’s progress has been modest and measured. From a short stint in the 2013 postseason (a little less than seven minutes a game over three contests), to a little less than eight minutes a game two years ago, to just under 11 minutes in the regular season last year and just under eight minutes a game in the playoffs, Wilson has been spoon-fed additional time. What he has not yet had in any significant measure is additional responsibility. He comes into this season having built a reputation for being a player not to be trifled with. With 165 regular season and playoff games on his resume, he will be in a position to take the next step in his development, to expand his repertoire, to use his physical past as a stepping stone, not a millstone.
Projection: 78 games, 8-15-23, plus-2
Photo: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images North America