“Tom Wilson”. That’s it, that’s all one has to say to start a heated conversation inside the hockey world. He is the most controversial players in the league with Boston Bruin Brad “The Licker” Marchand a close second. When it comes to Wilson, fans of the game either love him or hate him (mostly the latter), there really isn’t any in-between. Ever since he entered the league five seasons ago he’s lived on the edge of clean and dirty, laying out absolutely world destroying hits. Even when the league found his hits to be clean he was still being labeled a dirty player.
Though his antics have always been relegated to the ice, Wilson recently took them off ice when he signed a six-year deal with the Capitals with an annual value of $5.17 million, which set fire to the hockey world. One would have thought he took a two-handed stick swing at Connor McDavid’s face or something. Everyone came from out of the woodwork to voice how “terrible” of a contract the Capitals just handed out. In the Hockey section on Reddit, the news resulted in over 1,000 comments and of course Twitter had something to say about it too.
Why do so many people outside (and many inside) Washington believe it’s a terrible deal? Because the word most associated with the Capitals’ physical winger is “goon”, implying that Wilson is no more than a physical player who relies on rattling hits and his fists to make it in the NHL, not bringing much value to his team in terms of offensive production. A quick look at his stats and it’s understandable as to why many think this. Since he entered the league, Wilson has played 391 games, racking up the sixth-most hits, the most penalty minutes by a whopping 115 minutes, followed by a lot of face punching. In that same time span he ranks 313th in points scored with 104. So a lot of hits, time in the sin bin, fights, and not many points certainly sounds a lot like a “goon”. But as with everything, context is so important, especially when trying to evaluate a unique player like Wilson.
Before diving into the context of the contract, one should look at Wilson’s journey and how he got to where he is now in his NHL career. Drafted 16th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Wilson was pegged as the next Milan Lucic: a hulking winger that can man handle anybody but also put up points in a Top 6 role. After his draft year, Wilson spent one more season in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), until then-Capitals General Manager George McPhee and former head coach Adam Oates decided it would be best for him to make the jump right into the NHL as a 19-year old without an undefined role, a move that would prove to be very unwise. Over the next four seasons, Wilson was plugged mostly into a fourth-line role in which it was basically impossible for him to develop into the Top 6 power forward they hoped he would be when he was drafted. Wilson undoubtedly should have gone back to Juniors for one more season, followed by at least one year (probably two) in the American Hockey League, meaning he shouldn’t have made his debut in the NHL until he was at least 21-years old, preferably 22.
Now that it’s understood his development was hindered, it’s time to get back to context. Before judging Wilson on his offensive totals, it’s important to understand two things: 1) how he was deployed in his first four seasons from 2013-2017, and 2) how his point totals from the 2017-2018 season compare to other Top 6 players around the league. First, one needs to take a look at his deployment from 2013-2017. According to Corsica, these are the top 10 lines that Wilson played on in the first four seasons of his career, in terms of time on Ice.
Many people have pointed out that the 358 minutes played with Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom is proof that Wilson still couldn’t produce. It’s important to note 302 minutes of that time came in one season, the 2014-2015 season, when Wilson was just 20-years old. It’s clear that Wilson shouldn’t have been in the NHL at that time so it’s unfair to expect him to produce like a Top 6 talent so early in his career. But still, that line finished with a +3.92 Corsi For % and +7.53 x Goals For %, so he still helped that line be a force on the ice. So without those 302 minutes, Wilson only spent 56 minutes with them.
But outside that line, when one looks at the rest of those players, it’s easy to see why Wilson only scored 69 points in those first four seasons. Is anyone going to produce big when buried in the defensive zone with centers like Jay Beagle, Michael Latta, and Mike Richards, with other wingers like Aaron Volpatti, Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, or Daniel Winnik? It’s important to note that Latta, Richards, Volpatti, and Laich aren’t even in the league anymore! Chimera and Winnik are currently unrestricted free agents and the league is a month into free agency, so it’s certainly possible that of the 11 players Wilson mostly played with in the first four seasons, that only five are still in the NHL. Knowing that, it’s not fair at all to base Wilson’s production, mostly as a fourth-line player, in that time as a basis for Wilson’s true ability. One could deploy Jakub Vrana like Wilson was and it’s doubtful he would fair any better with those linemates.
Now it’s time to take a look at Wilson’s most productive season of Wilson’s NHL career, which came this past season (2017-18). Even if people ignore Wilson’s first four seasons’ context, they’ll still point out Wilson’s 35 points in 78 games as a reason why he’s not worth his contract. It’s hard to argue with that, as most Top 6 players getting paid $5 million or more probably have to hover close to 50 points. But again, this is where context really comes in handy. Of Wilson’s 35 points, 32 of them came at 5v5. That was tied for 96th among all forwards, ahead of players like Derek Stepan, Ryan Johansen, James van Riemsdyk, Logan Couture, Tyler Johnson, and many more considered to be Top 6 forwards. If there are 186 Top 6 players in the league, then Wilson put up points close to a first-line player in terms of 5v5 production.
It’s gets even more impressive when one considers Wilson didn’t begin playing in the Top 6 consistently until November 20, 2017 (a fact many forget, as most say he was in top 6 all season, he wasn’t). From that point through the end of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, this is how Wilson’s stats broke down: exactly 82 games played, 17 goals, and 27 assists for a total of 44 points (if one wants to get specific, five of those games – with one assist – played were on the third-line according to HockeyViz). And that is only at 5v5. 44 5v5 points over last season would have tied him for 27th among all forwards, better than players like Phil Kessel, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jonathan Huberdeau, Jakub Voracek, John Tavares, Matt Duchene, and Jason Zucker, just to name a few. That is easily top-line production at 5v5. But most people just look at those 35 points and sees an overpaid bottom-six player.
The issue is that Wilson gets close to zero time on the power play; he had less than five minutes last season and for most of that it wasn’t because he was on a unit, it was because he would jump on the ice for the last few seconds of a power play for a line change. The one time he was actually on a power player unit to start, he made this insane play:
Now the question is are those 32 or 44 points legitimate or was it a one-time thing? That’s a relevant question because if the Capitals signed Wilson assuming he’ll put out that same amount of production consistently, then that’s a big gamble. Because if this was a one-time thing, then the Capitals are in trouble. It’s hard to determine if Wilson could repeat his production from last season, but one can take a look at the underlying stats and watch some video to give a clue as to what might happen.
For the underlying numbers, it’s a bit difficult to decipher from last season because the Capitals struggled in terms of possession until Michal Kempny came along in March, but even then, lines with Wilson on them did pretty well. Last season this is how all the lines Wilson played on shook out (with at least 50 minutes).
|TOI||Rel CF%||Rel xGF%||PDO||ZSR|
Every line Wilson was on he did good to great besides the line on which he played with Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov, for some reason that line just a straight train wreck. But considering that’s one line out of those six, one shouldn’t look too far into it. The heavy offensive zone starts and PDO (luck) might make people think Wilson only did well because he started in the offensive zone so much and had some luck, but that’s about how all top-lines look. They get heavy offensive starts and tend to have a high PDO because of the skill on their line.
Sidenote: it’s actually surprising that Wilson spent more time with Backstrom than Kuznetsov; it seemed like Wilson spent more time with Kuznetsov than Backstrom. But maybe that was because that Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson line was so amazing in the playoffs:
|TOI||Rel CF%||Rel xGF%||PDO||ZSR|
The most common argument against Wilson is, “well he’s playing with great players and is being carried by them.” It’s unlikely anyone will argue against that, when one plays with better players they tend to play better. But it’s a very big misconception to think that anyone can play with top-end talent and produce, especially fourth-liners. Capitals fans have seen this before, where team brass believes some bottom-six players can jump into the top-line and be a force. Joey Crabb, Jay Beagle, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and even this season with Devante Smith-Pelley and Alex Chiasson; all tried to play in top 6 and it never worked (though Ward had a nice little run there for a bit). If Wilson was truly just a fourth-line player or a so-called goon, he certainly wouldn’t be putting up the numbers he did last season, he would have been removed from the line just like the others.
Even former Capital Marcus Johansson at the age of 23, playing 479 minutes with Ovechkin and Backstrom, put up only 21 5v5 points, granted that was the dark era of Oates head coaching. But even in his last season with the team, Johansson, at age 26, played 513 minutes with Kuznetsov and Justin Williams and produced 32 5v5 points in 82 games, just like Wilson just did, but Wilson did it four less games, while also being three years younger. This isn’t to put Johansson down, who was an amazing top-six player for the Capitals, but it’s to show just how Wilson’s production last season compared to others.
Below will be some visuals of Wilson’s ability. It’s broken up into different aspects of his game: speed, vision/passing, shooting, and unique playmaking. But one will usually find all four in one example. It’s worth watching each GIF a couple times to really understand just how much of an impact Wilson made on the ice.
A lot of fans don’t realize just how fast Wilson is. It’s his speed that separates him from other physical forces around the league; it’s actually what makes his hits so bone crunching. It’s not just a big body hitting you, it’s a big body at high velocity, which causes most the damage. But he can also use this in offensive ways, being able to separate from opponents or just get to pucks faster than opponents to win battles.
He’s out-skating or keeping pace with players like Duncan Keith, Conor Sheary, Charlie McAvoy, Thomas Chabot, John Klingberg, Victor Hedman, and Ryan McDonagh. It’s not like Wilson is a world burner on skates, but he’s fast enough to beat out most players to the puck. Also worth noting a lot of plays above he uses both his speed and physicality to make things happen. A good example is when Wilson uses his speed to beat out McAvoy, then uses his physicality to throw him off before making a move to the net, and when it doesn’t work he gathers the puck and jets right to the net again for another chance.
Another good question is how was Wilson able to produce so well while in the top-six? Was it because he was just dishing out secondary assists? Was he just giving the puck to Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, or Backstrom then let them do all the work to create chances and score goals? According to the evidence, that isn’t the case. Wilson has very underrated playmaking ability. Not only can he dish the puck out quite well, but he has some great IQ and vision to know where to be and where the puck should go. Watch this batch of GIFs over and over again, and one will see something new from Wilson every time. Maybe some of the passes are simple, but it’s his vision that allows him to know where his teammates are so he can make the right pass. It’s impressive.
In each of these plays Wilson is using his hockey IQ and great vision. How did Wilson know where to be to pick the puck off? He’s making passes quickly and precisely, sometimes without keeping his head up, because he knows where his teammates are going to be. That’s smart and very un-goonish. Did any of those plays look like Wilson was just being a passenger? It looks like just about all of those plays don’t happen without Wilson being on the ice. Also, that tap pass he does against the LA Kings to Backstrom into the slot is beautiful.
As for the actual numbers, of Wilson’s 32 5v5 points, 23 of them were primary, so either a goal or primary assist. That ranked him 101st among forwards, which is still top six production. And if you look at just his last 82 games of the season, he would have had 29 primary points, which would have ranked 48th last season, which is top line production.
By visuals and numbers, it shows Wilson isn’t just a passenger that gets the puck to Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, or Backstrom, letting them do all of work. He’s an equal on that line in terms of helping put the puck in the net. None of the secondary assists above are because he did something simple, they are assists created because he can win battles and get the puck to his teammates accurately.
If there is one big weakness with Wilson, it is his shot. It’s not that it’s horrific, but it could be better. As shown by some of his goals below, he can snipe it or use some sweet moves to finish a play off, but he could definitely do it more. Hopefully most of his summer ice work has been worked on getting shots off.
But it is difficult to expect him to shoot when Ovechkin is on the other wing, because the Russian sniper will never pass-up a chance to shoot (unless it’s a 2-on-1 and we really need a goal).
Last season, over the last 82 games of the season, Wilson ripped off 124 5v5 shots, which would have been 5th among the Capitals forward group. That’s not bad, but we would still love to see that number rise to 150+.
What’s not included in here are Wilson’s five tip-in goals. It doesn’t seem like a lot but it is. It’s a good sign he’s so good at that because he’s a bus in front of the net. Wilson also owns the second closest shot distance among all top six forwards besides Vrana.
The following are called “Wilson Plays”: goals or close to goals that really don’t happen without Wilson doing his thing before hand. He uses his hands, physical ability, and vision to make things happen. Most of the examples from above could apply too, but these kind of had everything in. There were a lot of them but these are just a few.
Though a goal didn’t result from the work, the best play above might be the one against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Wilson uses his speed to get in on the forecheck (around some guy named Sidney Crosby), then shows his skill on a twist backhand pass to Kuznetsov who dishes it to Ovechkin for a great chance but he misses. But the play doesn’t end so Wilson uses his physicality to hound Kris Letang who coughs up the puck to Kuznetsov who dishes the puck once again to Ovechkin who misses. So within about five seconds Wilson helps create two high danger chances. A more successful version of that play is the Tampa Bay Lightning game where Wilson forces an opponent off the puck then gets on his high horse up the ice before dishing a perfect pass to Ovechkin for a goal.
A lot of people will probably be surprised after seeing how much Wilson produced while in top six and how he uses his speed, vision, passing, and physicality to do it. If anyone looks at that evidence and says he’s still just a goon then they are just mad Wilson is even in the league. But even after all the evidence is Wilson still worth his $5.17M AAV deal? After that stellar year it’s okay to second guess why the Capitals made such a big gamble. The production Wilson put up probably deserved a contract around $4M but the Capitals went a full $1M over. Why? Well, it’s probably because of Wilson’s “intangibles”.
Ugh even saying that word will make you shiver. When someone uses the word “intangibles” to justify an expensive signing it’s usually a bad sign. Because that’s reserved for guys that don’t really help the team’s production but because he might be a leader, or shot blocker, or heavy hitter, or gritty, or other aspects that can’t be measured to offense then others will use that as a justification for a signing. And mostly everyone will agree that Wilson does all of those “intangible” things, but the intangible that probably earned Wilson that extra $1M is his uniqueness.
Wilson is a unicorn. There isn’t a single forward in the game that is like him. Sure there might be players that are as fast, physical, smart, skilled, or able to live in the opponents’ head but there isn’t one other player that has all of it put together. Players that certainly had that ability were Wayne Simmonds, Milan Lucic, and Dustin Brown, but they don’t nearly have the speed that Wilson has. Brendan Gallagher is a good comparison but he doesn’t have the body Wilson does. To put it short: no one can make the plays Wilson does. Of all the examples above about the passing, vision, and physicality, and so on, sure some players out there can do maybe most of those plays, but no one else can do all of them. And that’s the point, that’s why Wilson got the deal he got. The Capitals have a secret weapon with Wilson that no one else can have for another 6 years.
Was it maybe unwise to sign Wilson to such a big deal, only after one season of top six trust and production? Probably. A bridge deal around $4M would have been a better choice, just in case last season was a fluke. Even if it doesn’t look like it, there’s always a chance Wilson could regress.
But on the flip side, if Wilson can come out and produce 50+ points while also living in the head of his opponents, then it’s a steal of a deal that could age extraordinarily well. But for it to be a successful deal, Wilson probably needs to hover around 45 points (assuming he gets top six and power play time) and be his unique self that demands attention on the ice.
Is Wilson a legit top line player that could drive play by himself? No. But there’s absolutely no argument for Wilson being a fourth line goon that can’t do anything unless he’s being carried. Both analytics, and especially the eye test, shows he’s a force in the top six that can help his line mates produce goals. It was a gamble for the Capitals to trust that Wilson will repeat his production from just one season.
It’s allowed for a person to not like the $5.17M price tag based mostly off of one season, but it is not okay for a person to say Wilson will never lived up to his price tag. Because as shown, he has the skill level to do it, now it’s up to him to prove it.
By Luke Adomanis