“Every obstacle yields to stern resolve.”
-- Leonardo da Vinci
Save for the dark, conspiracy-addled recesses of the minds of some fans among rivals of the Washington Capitals, we are past the point of attaching the labels “goon” or “thug” to Tom Wilson. In 2019-2020 Wilson completed his second consecutive 20-goal/40-point season, both times doing it while playing fewer than 70 games (in 2018-2019 due to a 14-game suspension, in 2019-2020 due to cancellation of the regular season).
And, in 2019-2020 he did it while reducing his off-ice time due to penalties taken. His 1.37 penalty minutes charged per game was the lowest of his career to date (he had 1.62 in 2016-2017). He had five fighting majors, down from six in 2018-2019 and 13 in 2017-2018 (one of those fighting majors last season was against new teammate Zdeno Chara…awkward).
The blemish in Wilson’s performance in 2019-2020 was in a drop-off he had late in the season. Over the first four months he did not average less than a half point per game in any month, and he had double digits in points in November (12 in 14 games) and in January (10 in 11 games). However, he managed only four points (all goal) in 12 games in February before rebounding a bit in March (three points in five games). He did not bounce all the way back in the postseason, posting a single goal on 13 shots in eight games.
Odd Wilson Fact… Tom Wilson had 21 goals last season, and many were scored in bunches. He had five instances last season in which he scored goals in at least two consecutive games, accounting for 13 of his 21 goals.
Odd Wilson Fact II… Tom Wilson is the only player in the NHL entering the league after the 2004-2005 lockout to have played in 500 games (522), posted at least 50 goals (78), and logged at least 1,000 penalty minutes (1,027) in his first seven NHL seasons.
Odd Wilson Fact III… At the highest level, there was little difference in Tom Wilson’s home point total (21 in 33 games) and that on the road (23 in 35 games). But how he got there was not quite the same. He had seven goals and 14 assists at home, 14 goals and nine assists on the road.
Odd Wilson Fact IV (really?..aren’t we beating this to death?)… The Caps lost all six games last year in which Wilson skated more than 20:30 in ice time (0-3-3, all three extra time losses in Gimmicks), they were 4-1-0 when he skated less than 16 minutes.
Odd Wilson Fact V (okay, one more)… Tom Wilson is one of two forwards in the league to have been credited with 200 or more hits in each of the last six seasons (Ryan Reaves is the other). He’s have made it seven in a row, but he had “only” 197 hits as a rookie in 2013-2014.
There just is not a player in the league that combines improving offensive skill, the ability to log heavy penalty killing minutes (when he isn’t logging penalty minutes of his own), and requiring opponents to know where he is on the ice and keep their heads on a swivel like Tom Wilson. While it is noteworthy that Wilson is shaving penalty minutes taken while improving his offensive numbers and taking on a bigger penalty killing role, Wilson remains the quintessential “power” forward who embodies the Fred Shero credo, “arrive at the net with the puck and in ill humor.” Wilson’s sharp edges have been sanded down a bit, but they still have bite.
There are diminishing returns on Tom Wilson taking penalty minutes. In 2019-2020, the Caps were 11-6-2 in the 19 games in which he logged two minutes, 2-0-0 in games in which he logged four minutes, and 1-4-0 in the five games in which he had a fighting major. They were 27-9-6 in the 42 games in which he was not charged a penalty minute. And the hitting does not really pay dividends. The Caps were 4-7-2 in 13 games in which Wilson was credited with seven or more hits.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:
- 100 career goals (he currently has 78)
- 200 career points (188)
- 1,100 penalty minutes (1.027)
The Big Question… Is there still room for improvement for Tom Wilson?
Over his first six seasons, Tom Wilson improved his goal scoring totals consistently and dramatically, from three in 82 games as a rookie in 2013-2014 to 22 goals in 63 games (a 29-goal pace over 82 games) in 2018-2019. He slipped slightly last season (21 goals in 68 games), but his assist total continued an upward trend (career high 23 helpers), as did his point total (career high 44 points). His “grittership” numbers are a mixed bag. His hits-per-60 minutes have been dropping over his seven seasons (from 18.15 in 2013-2014 to 12.21 last season), but his blocked shots-per-60 minutes have increased significantly (from 1.19 to 2.80). His giveaways-per-60 minutes have gone up (from 0.92 in 2013-2014 to 2.93 last season), and his takeaways dropped off the table from 2018-2019 (2.25) to 2019-2020 (1.20).
What is seems to suggest is that we might be at a “pause” in Wilson’s career arc after years of improvement. On the one hand, he is still only 26 years old (27 in March), suggesting he is still in the chronological “advancement” phase of his career. On the other, he is a veteran of 522 regular season games and 77 postseason games. If he plays in 54 games this season he will pass Mike Green for 22nd place on the all-time games played list for the Caps. He is one of six players in Capitals history to dress for 500 or more games by his age-26 year in the league. Caps fans hope the “pause” is not a “ceiling.”
In the end…
Early in his career, Tom Wilson might have been described as “rambunctious.” Fans of other teams would have other adjectives. But Tom Wilson has matured and developed into a solid two-way player that still has some offensive upside. He has not been completely domesticated; he remains a fiery player one confronts at one’s peril. His ability to pick his spots to display a physical edge while improving on his game within the rules has been one of the interesting story lines to watch over his career, and his further refinement in this area of tension will be an important story line to watch as this season unfolds.
Projection: 56 games, 15-18-33, plus-2