“True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.”
-- Saint Francis de Sales
More than a few Washington Capitals fans might look at Tom Wilson and see a 16th-overall draft choice that is not performing like a 16th-overall draft choice. He might merit another look. Looking at his 2012 draft class, Wilson ranks fifth in career games played (231), 16th in goals scored (14), 12th in assists (36), 12th in points (50), tied for 13th in plus-minus (plus-3). He also happens to have more than three times as many penalty minutes (486) than the second-place player, Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba (151).
Of more immediate importance, Wilson has improved in each of his three seasons in multiple statistical categories. Goals have climbed from three in his rookie season to four in his sophomore year to seven last season. Assists jumped from seven to 13 to 16. Points rose from 10 to 17 to 23. Shots on goal went from 63 to 79 to 99, with his shooting percentage going along for the ride, from 4.8 to 5.1 to 7.1. His time on ice has risen from 7:56 per game in his rookie season to 10:56 in his second season to 12:55 last year. And a big part of that was the shorthanded ice time Wilson logged. Whereas in 2014-2015 he recorded a total of 46 shorthanded seconds, he averaged 1:35 a game last season.
That penalty minute number has been one that stood out for Wilson in each of his three seasons. No player in the league has more combined minutes over the last three seasons than Wilson (Antoine Roussel and Derek Dorsett are tied in second with 480 minutes). Those 486 minutes for Wilson are the most for a player in his first three seasons in the league since Jared Boll recorded 555 penalty minutes for the Columbus Blue Jackets ending in 2009-2010.
However, Wilson displayed more discipline in his third season than in the previous season. His total minutes were down (from 172 to 163), as were his minutes per game (2.57 to 1.99) and his fighting majors (from 12 to 7). Not that the exuberance was necessarily a bad thing. The Caps were 4-1-2 in games in which Wilson had a fighting major and 8-2-3 in games in which he recorded at least five minutes in penalties.
The fighting and the penalty minutes might not have mattered, but the Caps got a glimpse that his ability to contribute supplemental scoring might matter more. Washington was 7-0-0 in games in which Wilson recorded a goal (extending that streak with wins in a goal-scoring game to eight dating back to the 2014-2015 season) and 19-0-1 in games in which he recorded a point (28-0-3 dating back to the 2014-2015 season).
I wonder if Tom Wilson wasn’t a bit of a bad luck charm last season. According to the folks at stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Wilson skated at least 100 5-on-5 minutes with six other forwards. Four of them – Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich, Mike Richards, and Michael Latta – are no longer with the team (Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson were the others). And here is the other thing with those six forwards. Their possession numbers (Corsi-for) were better apart from Wilson than they were with him.
And the postseason. One point. One. And it was not as if his ice time was cut back. He still averaged 12 minutes a game. And those possession numbers were still pretty weak (46.95 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5). He had only two shots on goal in his last seven games in the postseason. He has had only 15 shots on goal in his last 25 postseason games.
The Big Question… Can Tom Wilson make it four-for-four in improving his performance numbers?
Tom Wilson has improved steadily in his three-year career so far, but the numbers are still modest. Twelve minute/23 point players are not rare commodities in the NHL. On the other hand, Wilson will not turn 23 years old until next March. He is young enough to be given room to grow, but the Caps having T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams on the right side, then going out and getting another right winger in Brett Connolly, might make one wonder about just how much room – or more precisely, time – Wilson might get to improve upon his numbers. One thing that would help with the time he gets is improve on his possession numbers from last season. He would seem to have it in him, or at least not be a drag on possession. He was 52.65 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 in 2014-2015 before dropping to 46.55 percent last season (numbers from Corsica.hockey).
In the end…
Tom Wilson is entering the first year of a two-year/$2 million contract with the Caps. Among his age and compensation cohort he does not seem to be quite the value of the others in the group (one that might include Marcus Foligno, Riley Sheehan, Calle Jarnkrok, Jason Zucker, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Sven Baertschi in the 22-25 age group and $1.75-2.25 million AAV; numbers from generalfanager.com). But the Caps have had the luxury of bringing Wilson along slowly as a right winger. The flip side of that entering this season is that there might be something of a log jam in front of him with T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and perhaps Brett Connolly. It will put a premium on making the most of what might be limited opportunities, or at least opportunities that do not look a lot different from the fourth line work that has dominated his resume to date.
Wilson has managed to improve his numbers without the benefit of getting much of an increase in ice time with more productive personnel. Last season, for example, he recorded fewer than 50 5-on-5 minutes with each of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and he had less than two minutes of power play time for the season. He might have some growth left in him in this role, but his development arc might be getting to that point where the club is going to have to see what he can do with more responsibility. That could be where the next step in his progress lies.
Projection: 82 games, 9-16-25, plus-4
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America