“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
-- Lao Tzu
In his five seasons in the NHL, no player is within 80 penalty minutes of Tom Wilson (806; Antoine Roussel has 721), and only Cody McLeod has more major penalties (77 to 58 for Wilson). Last year for the Washington Capitals he set a personal high in penalty minutes for a season with 187, and only Michael Haley had more fighting majors (22) than Wilson (13, tied with McLeod). If Tom Wilson was President, his Secret Service code name would not be “Shrinking Violet.”
But a funny thing happened along the way last season. Wilson set career bests in goals (14), assists (21), points (35), shots on goal (123), shooting percentage (11.4) and ice time (15:59) establishing himself as a credible right wing on the Capitals’ top line. On top of that, Wilson took a regular turn among the penalty killers, averaging 1:44 in shorthanded ice time, third among Caps forwards.
It was a season that had two distinct parts to it for Wilson. In his first 24 games he had only two goals, both of those (including the game-winner) coming in a 3-2 win in Boston over the Bruins on November 4th. Starting in his 25th game, one in which he scored his first two goals on home ice last season in a 6-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, he scored 12 goals in his final 54 games, an 18-goal pace over a full 82-game season.
Wilson built on a solid regular season with an even better postseason. How much? Since 2005-2006, 51 skaters have appeared in at least 10 playoff games in a single postseason for the Caps. Of that group, eight of them have at least one postseason in which they averaged 0.70 points per game. Wilson joined the group last spring with 15 points in 21 games, 0.71 points per game.
Odd Wilson Fact…
Tom Wilson is one of only four players in the NHL over the last five seasons to record at least 30 goals and at least 500 penalty minutes.
Bonus Odd Wilson Fact…
Only Bob Carpenter and Alex Ovechkin played more games over their first five seasons (400 and 396, respectively) than Wilson (391) in franchise history.
Double Bonus Odd Wilson Fact…
Tom Wilson is one of only two players drafted by the Capitals in team history to have logged at least 800 penalty minutes in his first five seasons (Scott Stevens had 1,065 PIMs).
Tom Wilson’s development in the offensive end of the ice adds a dimension that the Caps haven’t had a lot of in recent years, a player with an edge who can contribute. Yes, he has that history of penalty minutes, but the Caps were 17-1-1 in games in which he recorded at least three shots on goal last season, 9-1-0 in the ten games in which he recorded at least one goal, and 21-4-2 in games in which he recorded at least one point. The Caps lost three of four games in which Wilson was charged with ten or more penalty minutes.
Yeah, about all those games played. In Capitals history, 17 forwards dressed for 300 or more games in their first five seasons. Only Wilson had fewer than 50 career goals (35; Brooks Laich has the next lowest goal total in that group: 59 goals in 314 games). An odd thing about his 2017-2018 season is that in 40 games in which he logged no penalty minutes he had a total of two goals.
- 400 career games played (he needs nine)
- 50 career goals (he needs 15)
- 1,000 penalty minutes (he needs 194)
- 500 shots on goal (he needs 41)
- 5,000 minutes played (he needs 250)
The Big Question… Can Tom Wilson take his place among the top “power forwards” in the NHL?
Taking Tom Wilson with the 16th overall pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft came with some risk. He had two years of Canadian junior hockey under his belt and did not have the sort of offensive numbers one might associate with a mid-first round pick (12-21-33 in 77 games). Even his third season in junior hockey, one in which he was 23-35-58 in 48 games, was a significant improvement, but not an extraordinary output on the offensive side of the puck, given his draft position.
He did give hints, though. In two seasons in the playoffs in junior hockey, Wilson scored 16 goals in 25 games. But when he got to the NHL for his first regular season test in 2013-2014 (he dressed for three playoff games the previous spring for the Caps), he was primarily a banger. He had 197 credited hits, 151 penalty minutes, and only ten points in 82 games. And, while his offensive numbers did improve over his next three seasons, he topped out at seven goals in each of his two seasons preceding the 2017-2018 season.
Doubling his career best in goals, almost doubling his highs in assists and points, and following that up by tripling his career playoff point total over the 41 games over the previous four postseasons combined suggested that Wilson is ready to build on the responsible role he assumed on the top forward line last season. It would make for an interesting mix. Since the 2005-2006 season, only five players have recorded more than 20 goals and more than 150 penalty minutes in the same season, and none of them did it more than once. Twenty goals and 40 points would be the next thresholds for Wilson to reach in his path to being mentioned among the top “power forwards” in the NHL.
In the end…
On July 27th, the Capitals made another bet on Tom Wilson. They signed the 24-year old to a six-year/$31 million contract with modified no-trade clauses in the final four years of the deal (source: capfriendly.com). It is an interesting neighborhood for payroll. Of 43 forwards with cap hits between $4.5 and $5.5 million (Wilson’s is $5.17 million), only Calgary’s Elias Lindholm and Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg are younger (both are 23, and both carry lower cap hits). Wilson might have remained a bruising player whose main value was getting into the heads of opponents and their fans. But with the Caps’ new deal with the player, they are betting that Wilson, who already has a well-developed physical dimension to his game, will continue to exhibit progress in the offensive side of his game and to continue playing a key penalty killing role. It is a change of direction that both player and club have as the same destination – a Stanley Cup.
Projection: 80 games, 18-25-43, plus-11
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America