Is Tom Wilson the Next Chris “Knuckles” Nilan?

NHL: Preseason-Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes
Photo: NESN

Capitals right winger Tom Wilson has long been considered by many outside (and some within) Washington to be a player incapable of becoming a more offensive player in an ever-changing NHL after developing a reputation as an enforcer-type player. In this piece, Angus Long looks at why that may not be the case by comparing Wilson to a very similar player.

This weekend, while holding over between Capitals games, I re-watched a documentary on Amazon Prime. The documentary “The Last Gladiators” follows the life of former Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Boston Bruins tough guy Chris Nilan. While watching this, I naturally tried to associate him with a player in the league today. After thinking of many obvious tough guys in the NHL: Milan Lucic, Ryan Reeves and the Schenn brothers, I really couldn’t shake the thought that Washington’s own Tom Wilson is almost the perfect fit.

Chris “Knuckles” Nilan was a blue-collar boy from outside of Boston. He grew up loving the game of hockey and dreamed of playing in the NHL for his hometown Bruins. After playing for Northwestern University, he was drafted in the nineteenth-round in 1978 (231st overall), and played one season in the American Hockey League (AHL). Once he was called up at the end of the 1979-1980 season, he embraced his role as a fighter to stick with the team. However, with the help of a head coach, he slowly began scoring goals, and became a fan favorite.

Now, you’re probably thinking, where does Tom Wilson relate? Well, Tom Wilson was born in Toronto, another major hockey town, and grew up loving the Maple Leafs. While He initially struggled offensively, but became known as the resident “tough guy” on the Caps. Also, Nilan has recorded almost double Wilson’s penalty minutes (Wilson has played about half the number of games that Nilan did and recorded only a quarter of the penalty minutes). Fighting has gone down in the past decade. But, Wilson and Nilan both have been tagged with the “modern tough guy” title. This title meaning “a guy who can fight and score”. Over his nine-season tenure with the Canadiens, Nilan’s scoring peaked at 37 points in the 1984-85 season. In the four seasons he’s played in Washington, Wilson’s scoring has peaked at 23 points, which came during the 2015-2016 season. While these numbers do not exactly match up, one must remember that there has been a drastic drop in goals scored between the 1980’s and today’s NHL. So, a third or fourth-line player won’t score as many points today as a third or fourth-line player in the 1980’s would have.

But what stands out to me the most between the two that you can’t draw to the other tough guys in the league is the heart and passion they bring to the game. Nilan was known for bringing a fury on the ice, a player who once got so mad during a game he punched out the glass exit sign above the Canadiens’ bench. It’s this passion that Caps fans see from Wilson game in and game out. Take the Capitals’ first round playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs this past April. We all know the dreaded mistake Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock made when he said that Wilson was not a big concern to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Wilson not only scored the game-winner in overtime in Game 1, but he went on to have an amazing series against his hometown club. While for some, the love for Wilson comes more from his physical appearance than his on-ice performance, it’s the passion and intensity that he brings to every game that has wormed his way into our hearts and made “Willy” a fan favorite in Washington.

While the direct comparison between Knuckles Nilan and Tom Wilson may not be the cleanest cut. I feel that Nilan and Wilson’s comparison is much deeper than what the surface statistics show. What these two players meant and mean to their respective cities is something that did and has changed the meaning of hockey for the two cities. The Capitals would not be the same team without Wilson, and the 1986 Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens definitely would not be the same without Nilan, who teammates credit with bringing the team together for that run in “The Last Gladiators”. Who knows? Perhaps one day Wilson will be a key factor in a Capitals’ Stanley Cup win like Nilan was for the Canadiens.

By Angus Long

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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