Lots of Caps fans might be saying “what happened to Tom Wilson?” There isn’t a freight train derailing opponents on his every shift, and his fists aren’t being thrown on a regular basis. Where did the favorite bash brother disappear to? Should the Capitals faithful be worried?
The answer is no. In fact, they should watch closely, as the evolution of a player is happening before their eyes. Tom Wilson may be dealing with one of the most difficult transitions of his career, and he is taking it in stride. Early in his career, he became a fan favorite for his heat seeking hits, pot-stirring banter, and ruthless fighting ability. Oppositions feared number 43, and every single player was mindful of his presence on the ice. Wilson created a reputation for himself, although not so popular to some players and fans across the hockey world, he quickly made a name in a league dominated by super-skill and finesse.
The NHL has been steadily evolving into a game where enforcers may have less and less impact, and players that could make careers out of “rough and tough” styles in the 90’s and early 2000’s are having a harder time doing so now. Although he certainly had some payoff, and was incredibly fun to watch, coach Barry Trotz and the Capitals needed a different kind of production from Wilson. Instead of spending half the game in the penalty box, 43 now spends a lot of time killing them off for his teammates. This season, he only has 23 penalty minutes so far, and is on pace to end the season well under 100 for the first time in his career. Last season, when his identity crisis started to bloom, Wilson closed the campaign with 163 penalty minutes, 3rd highest in the entire NHL. At this point in 2016, he is ranked 74th and only has 1 more PIM than captain Alex Ovechkin. A great example of proof that Wilson is becoming a more responsible player was last night, right after the Caps went up 2-1 after a Williams tally. Travis Hamonic, a spark player for the Islanders came into the boards with Wilson, and after an offside whistle was blown, things got a little chippy. Hamonic gave Wilson a cheap right to the face, and instead of causing a scene and receiving a minor for roughing or even a major for fighting, 43 took a breath and skated to the bench. His play following the interaction between the two was unaffected, and Wilson continued to play his lower six role with the team. He ended the night with an even plus/minus rating, 3 shots on goal, 1 penalty, and about 15 minutes of ice time.
For most of his career, Tom Wilson has found a home in the bottom half of forward lines. He has seen short stints among the top corps over the past couple seasons, but has given way to the insanely skilled Capitals offense that includes Alex Ovechkin, TJ Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetzov. Earlier this year, coach Barry Trotz expressed that he’d like Willy to develop into a “Joel Ward type player,” and top 6 forward. Although the Capitals roster may not necessarily allow Wilson to see much playing time on anything other than a checking line, or the penalty kill, he has certainly begun to develop a different eye for the game. Instead of running around like a bull in a china shop, Wilson has started a transition that may cause him to look like a lost identity with the Capitals. His numbers do not reflect that of a scorer, but his PIM’s and demeanor have left him much less noticeable by lots of Caps fans. Sometimes though, some of the most important players on the ice are the ones that go unnoticed.
Very seldom does Wilson give the puck away, his clears are strong, and the physical game is still there without committing penalties. 43 has been absolutely phenomenal on the penalty kill, often times making what could be game saving shot blocks and plays alike. When teams pull their goalie against the Capitals, much like penalty kill situations, Wilson gets the call as well. Against the Islanders last night, Wilson and his reliable linemates made it incredibly difficult for New York’s top scorers to set anything up. Although he took an unfortunate penalty with about 50 seconds left, he was almost perfect in important defensive situations. It stinks sometimes, because watching Wilson fly recklessly around the ice, making rivals sweat through their socks, was riveting and entertaining. Witnessing star players get absolutely wrecked by the big body forward was satisfying, and uplifting for audiences. When his gloves would fly off his hands to brawl for the Capitals, fans rose to their feet in anticipation of a knockout punch, giving Verizon Center a boost. From a more important perspective though, the Caps need something different from him, and he has been incredibly coachable. That is a huge and respectable reaction from a hard working guy, who is now being asked to adjust his entire game in many directions.
Top 6 forward, though? All while killing penalties and maintaining a strong defensive position with the club? It seems borderline impossible to ask a player to develop so many aspects of their game. In a time where Caps fans may be asking where their beloved Tom Wilson has gone, they should take the rest of this year to evaluate his evolution and change as a player in the NHL. Patience will be key in Wilson’s time of change, and fans should not be disappointed just because they aren’t seeing the fireworks they’ve grown accustomed to. Remember, a player of Wilson’s size and stature will always have the ability to protect his teammates, so if the time comes, he could surely step in and take care of business. In today’s league, a different type of play is becoming more and more key to adding and contributing to a team, so it’s very important for him to stay patient with himself as well. Who knows, there may be a time in his career (maybe not even with the Capitals) that Wilson can step into a top 6 position, and see more opportunities to score with higher skilled linemates. He is also incredibly young, and has a ton of time to work on his game, and find himself a true identity in a constantly changing game. He may never be Joel Ward, but he is certainly going to be in the league for a long time, and he will most definitely have a positive impact on any team he plays for. Stay with Tom Wilson as he continues to find his way, even if it’s not immediately.
By Brennan Reidy