“There is a certain combination of anarchy and discipline in
the way I work.”
-- Robert De Niro
The player Tom Wilson was is no more. He is no longer the player who, over his first six NHL seasons, compiled almost 100 more penalty minutes (934) than the player with the next highest total (Antoine Roussel: 839). He is not the player who took more major penalties (64) than any player in the league over that span except one (Cody McLeod: 84), who was one of two players to be charged with two match penalties over that span. who, of 221 players to play in at least 400 games over that span, averaged more penalties taken per 60 minutes (2.95) than any other player. That player is no more. Not that he has become a shrinking violet, but over the last three seasons, he averaged one fighting major every 12.9 games, compared to one fighting major every 7.4 games over his first six seasons. Physical play will always be a part of his game, but is a much more muted version he displays these days, while his other skills have emerged to make him a valuable element in the Caps’ success.
Fearless’ Take… Career year in goals (24), most assists in his career (28), first career 50-point season (52), tied a career high in shorthanded goals (two), best plus-minus rating of his career (plus-13), tied a career high in game-winning goals (five), career high in power play points (10), career best in on-ice goal differential at even strength (plus-14), tied a career high in first goals in games (six), career best in net minor penalties (drawn to taken) per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (0.11, first time he was better than even in this category), career high in power play ice time per game (2:32, first time over two minutes), career high in shifts taken (1,755). Yeah, you could say it was a good year.
Cheerless’ Take… His taking penalties can have a negative impact. The Caps were 13-10-1 in the 24 games in which he took penalties, 2-4-0 when he took a major. His offensive engagement was a bit of a mixed bag; the Caps were 11-10-2 in the 23 games in which he recorded three or more shots. Even physically, not everything was unicorns and accordions. The Caps were 14-11-5 in the 30 games in which he was credited with four or more hits (9-4-3 when he had one or none).
Odd Wilson Fact… Tom Wilson took more than 25 shifts ten times this season. The Caps were 2-2-6 in those ten games. He took fewer than 20 shifts 11 times, and the Caps were 7-4-0 in those games.
Odd Wilson Fact II… Tom Wilson is the only player in Caps history to post more than 100 goals (115), more than 250 points (273), more than five shorthanded goals (seven), and more than 1,000 penalty minutes (1,221).
Odd Wilson Fact III… Two players in the league this season posted at least 20 goals, at least 50 points, at least 90 penalty minutes, and at least two shorthanded goals. Tom Wilson was one; the other was Brad Marchand.
Game to Remember… April 9th at Pittsburgh. Tom Wilson scored his 100th career goal against Anaheim. He had three-point games against tough Colorado and Florida teams. He had a plus-4 game against the Avalanche. But nothing satisfies like a good game against the arch-rival Penguins, especially in their arena. That was the case in early April when the Caps, stumbling a bit with a 3-4-1 record over their previous eight games, landed in Pittsburgh. Wilson was on a decent run personally, going 6-7-13, plus-2, over his previous 16 games.
Pittsburgh opened the scoring on a Bryan Rust goal in the first minute of the game. The Caps scored a pair to pull ahead, but the Pens scored a pair of goals in the last two minutes of the first period to take a 3-2 lead to the locker room. Alex Ovechkin scored in the fifth minute of the second period, the only goal of the middle frame, to set up a third period that would start with the teams tied, 3-3. In the 12th minute, Wilson broke the tie. Justin Schultz swept a loose puck down the wall and out of the defensive zone where Wilson chipped it over the stick of defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. Wilson ducked around Ruhwedel and skated down the left wing on a 2-on-2 with Alex Ovechkin. From the left wing circle, he wristed shot to the long side past goalie Tristan Jarry, off the post, and in to give the Caps a 4-3 lead. The Caps added a pair of empty net goals, Wilson assisting on the latter to give him his 11th (and last) multi-point game of the season. His goal was the game-winner, his fifth of the season. He also added eight hits and four blocked shots to announce his presence loudly.
Game to Forget… January 7th at St. Louis. A lot of Caps had forgettable games when they visited St. Louis in early January. Tom Wilson was one of them. The Blues scored five goals; Wilson was on the ice for four of them. He finished with no shots on goal, only two credited hits, no takeaways, no blocked shots, and a season-worst minus-4 rating, only his third minus-4 rating of his career and the first one he recorded without having so much as a shot on goal.
Postseason… 91 seconds. That is all Wilson logged before sustaining a knee injury that will likely keep him out of the lineup until mid-season in 2022-2023. He did have a goal – his second career playoff power play goal. Despite the short stay, he did score a goal in his sixth consecutive postseason.
Looking Ahead… Tom Wilson was establishing himself firmly among the top power forwards in the league when injury struck. The fear at this point is that 2022-2023, a season in the middle of what should be Wilson’s productive prime, will be lost year, even if he does come back in mid-season, the nature of the injury he suffered being a serious one with long rehabilitation frames. The Caps do not appear to have a player who can fill Wilson’s role, which has become quite varied in recent years as a scorer, physical player, penalty killer, and leader on the ice. Replacing even a part of what Wilson provides will be among the biggest challenges facing the Caps next season.
In the End… Wilson’s development is a tribute to his skill, determination, and ultimately his discipline to become a more complete hockey player who has outgrown, except among the most rabid Wilson-haters, his reputation for being little more than an enforcer (the terms of preference among those not his fans might be something more vulgar). The hole he leaves in the lineup as he recovers from knee surgery is a much larger one for the Caps to fill than it might have been five years ago. His absence will be keenly felt and jeopardizes the Caps’ chances to reach the 2023 postseason.