Thursday, September 14, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Forwards: Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson

“The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”
-- Moliere

The first question we might ask as Tom Wilson skates into his fifth season with the Washington Capitals is, “is he on track in his development, or was his draft class a weak one that inflates his status within that class?”  The answer starts with where he started, as the 16th overall pick of the 2012 entry draft, between Codi Ceci (taken by the Ottawa Senators) and Tomas Hertl (selected by the San Jose Sharks).

Of the 211 players taken in the 2012 draft, only Alex Galchenyuk has appeared in more games (336) than Wilson (313). Otherwise, Wilson’s numbers rank roughly with his draft position: goals (21/T-17th), assists (48/T-16th), points (69/T-14th), plus-minus (plus-12/T-10th).

However, from another angle Wilson’s progress appears to have stalled.  Whether it is a product of playing almost exclusively fourth line minutes or just plateauing, his numbers have not moved much over the last three seasons.  Goals (four, seven, and seven over the past three seasons), assists (13, 16, and 12), and points (17, 23, and 19).

If there was something to take away in a more positive sense for Wilson last season, it is that he recovered from a sluggish start.  He started the season with one point (a goal) in his first 26 games but recovered to go 6-12-18 over his last 56 games (a 9-18-27 pace over 82 games).  It was part of a more engaged profile in the offensive end, at least as far as getting shots on goal was concerned.  After registering only 27 shots on goal in those first 26 games, he had 68 shots in his last 56 games (1.21 per game) and 22 in his last 15 games (1.47 per game).

Odd Wilson Fact… Tom Wilson remains a player who does not shy away from defending himself and teammates, although he did for the second consecutive season keep his fighting major penalties in single digits (nine).  Of those nine fighting majors, six of them came in road games.

Fearless’ Take…

One of the features of Tom Wilson’s development to date has been the waiting game of sorts as he progresses from a “physical” player with modest offensive numbers to a more well-rounded game.  Wilson is likely to always be considered a “power forward,” but there is evidence – baby steps, if you will – to suggest the turn is coming.  He did tie for tenth in the league in fighting majors last season, an uptick from the previous season when he was tied for 17th with seven such majors.  But there appears to be less of a “running around” aspect to his game, reflected in his hit total and the consequences of it.  The Caps were just 13-11-3 in the 27 games in which he had four or more hits, 42-8-5 when he had fewer than four hits.  That can be a product of the Caps – and Wilson – not chasing the puck in that winning record, but if one is looking at hints of an evolution in Wilson’s game, this could be a modest one.

Cheerless’ Take…

Four seasons, four times with more than 130 minutes in penalties.  Only one player in the league since the 2004-2005 lockout has as many seasons with that many or more PIMs in his first four seasons (Jared Boll).  One is a former fourth round draft pick with 27 goals and almost 1,300 penalty minutes in his career, the other is a 16th overall draft pick.  He had 133 penalty minutes last season, his fewest in four seasons, but at the moment, a line from the movie, “The Matriix,” comes to mind… “you have been down there… you know that road, you know exactly where it ends.  And I know that's not where you want to be.”

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 100 points (currently has 69)

The Big Question… Is this the season that Tom Wilson takes a big step up?

That is a question that can be looked at from a number of different angles.  In one sense, he took quite a step up last season.  He took regular shifts killing penalties, averaging a career best 2:04 in shorthanded ice time per game (fourth among forwards for the Caps).  Quite a difference from his first two seasons when he recorded a total of 46 seconds skating shorthanded in 149 games played.  This season, he will have at least the opportunity to broaden his even strength game.  There will be some sorting out at right wing behind T.J., Oshie with the departure of Justin Williams.  Grabbing a second line spot on the right side might be a reach, but a third line spot would almost be an expectation for a player with more than 350 regular and postseason games played in the NHL.  Wilson has not averaged as much as 12 minutes of even strength ice time per game in any of his four seasons and topped 11 minutes per game just once (11:13 in 2015-2016).  He is going to have the space and opportunity to expand on that this season.

In the end…

In his first four seasons, Tom Wilson was a too-often one-dimensional player, one who could intimidate physically but whose skill-based contributions were more modest.  Now, he has an opportunity to broaden his portfolio, to move up the depth ladder from the fourth line to which he was pinned by more experienced and skilled right wingers over his first four seasons.

If there were few bright spots in last spring's postseason for the Caps, Wilson might have been one.  He averaged almost 14 minutes per game in 13 postseason contests, a career high.  He also recorded his first three playoff goals, and although all of them came in the first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs (including the game-winner in Game 1), it was a step forward for Wilson.

Tom Wilson has demonstrated himself to be a durable (three seasons appearing in every regular season game) and at times intimidating player.  He has been a bit slower in demonstrating a consistent offensive game.  It is time for that part of his game to bear fruit.

Projection: 82 games, 11-18-29, plus-8

Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America