Evolution Of Tom Wilson: From Fourth-Line Fisticuffs to Top-six Weapon

Could a 20-game suspension be the best thing that ever happened to an NHL forward?  In Tom Wilson’s case, it may just be. Throughout his career, Wilson has dominated scoresheets when it comes to all things physical.  For years, his presence as an impact player could prove valuable to most teams in the league, whether that impact came through hits, or as a defensive force for highly skilled point-getters like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin.  This year,  however, things seem to be different.  His stick is as hot as ever and his role with the team has completely evolved to include racking up goals and assists while still maintaining his physical presence in the lineup.

After a big and arguably, unnecessary hit during the preseason in which Wilson blindsided Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues, he was made an example of by the NHL.  The league has been on a strict campaign of eliminating hits of this nature and as a repeat offender, it was to no surprise that the Department of Player Safety came down on him with a hefty suspension. While the hit may not have warranted as many as 20 games, in a position such as Wilson’s, it was the perfect opportunity for Gary Bettman and the league to prove that they are not messing around.  The message wasn’t just for No. 43 and the Caps, but for the entire league.

Throughout the league’s shift in change, the days of brute force to earn points in the standings are quickly deteriorating, if not entirely diminished already.  It simply does not make sense to build a roster around size and strength, but rather speed and skill.  Even the defensive core for many teams is more focused on mobility and puck skill over size and checking ability. Careers of men that made their livelihood via strict physicality and strength are ending more rapidly than ever, as their place in the NHL is becoming unjustifiable for any payroll.  It is simply the revolution of sports, and it is inevitable.

​Wilson has played in only 13 games this season, and in those 13 games has nine goals and six assists, totaling 15 points. Last season saw the former first-round pick record career-highs in the regular season with 35 points in 78 games played, which was below 0.5 points per game on average. At this point in the season, he is averaging over a point per game, and his style of play has transformed. Although still early in his career,there was a time when many thought Wilson would not become the offensive power forward the team envisioned when they drafted him 16th overall in 2012.  It’s safe to say that coaching and management were confident in Wilson and what he brought to the table, no matter what style of play it may be.

​Following his absence at the beginning of the 2018-2019 season, fans have been fortunate as he has been a consistent presence on the score sheet. Not just in the hits department, but in goals, assists, and plus/minus. Although the unit is struggling at the moment, Wilson’s role on the penalty kill has been a vital one as well.  It also never hurts to be playing on two of the top forward lines in the entire league, but his contribution has been a welcome one for the Caps.

The rugged right wing is seeing the game differently, and it has much to do with the fact that he’s constantly skating on thin ice with the league’s “authorities”, both in striped sweaters and suits in New York. Instead of seeing bodies to crush with huge hits, Wilson is seeing the puck, time, and space more often than he used to; rather than making a beeline for an opponent, he’s surveying plays much more calculated, creating a better defensive posture and outstanding offensive company for an already lethal scoring team. There is no doubt that the instinct to be physical is still prevalent within him, as there are times during games where it’s as if he’s deciding whether or not to stop or speed through a yellow light.  More often than not, Wilson is making smarter hockey choices, which has constantly proven fruitful through his short time on the active roster this year.

​For example, an opposing team is breaking out of their own zone and the primary puck holder is making a stride across the ice.  Rather than create a tunnel of vision for the carrier, Wilson is eyeing where the puck is headed more so than where it is.  If the open ice hit he’d be aiming for is missed, or a player makes a directional change, he would be completely out of the play, possibly giving the other team an odd-man break, automatically increasing the threat of a goal against.  The game is too fast and passing is too precise for players to be constantly looking for those hits.  Also, on the forecheck, Wilson would hit players against the end boards but possession of the puck was not the focus, which eventually led the opponent out of their own zone with ease, as most defensemen are trained to take the hit in order to preserve control of the play.  Avoiding these situations keeps him in plays longer, and more effectively, a more “responsible” entity on the playing surface.

​Although he isn’t a scoring spectacle making nifty dangles and picking corners, Wilson’s shooting percentage is a lofty 28.0, which is an indication that his positioning has improved greatly.  Rarely will an appearance on the highlight reel come his way, but for a team like the Capitals that already has enough of that, adding grit to a top-line that is one of the most dangerous in the league only bolsters its strength. The NHL may have done Wilson the biggest favor of his career if these numbers keep piling up and his play continues to translate as it has.  If a player is in good position, whether it be in the offensive of defensive zone, their ability to create space or cut off passing lanes increases immensely.  He seems more comfortable, with better knowledge of puck and player placement, partially because the focus is not on the body, but the play itself.

Playing “scared” isn’t a correct way to describe his game, but there is certainly a new sense of attention that has almost completely deterred Wilson from the previously reckless freight train that he once was. Surely fans will experience Wilson in his (let’s not kid ourselves) favorite form when he is called upon, and that’s part of what has made him such an abstract player.  For instance, a player like Ryan Reaves, a fairly one-dimensional player has never eclipsed more than 15 points in a season.  In previous years, the two forwards would be compared together as similar players, contributing about the same to their respective franchises, Wilson always carrying a bit more natural scoring prowess.  Never will Reaves be a “talented” player by any means and his job isn’t to be one, but it puts many things into perspective.  The transformation and complexity that Wilson can bring when he isn’t hell-bent on glass breaking hits and thumps to the temple with bare fists is proving that once the NHL threatened what was probably many, many more games of suspension, it was time to utilize his athleticism for good in other ways.  Wilson can now go beat somebody up, make a game changing hit, AND score the game-winning goal.  Any team in the league would be frothing at the mouth for a game-changer of his stature.

Do not fear, the natural sentiment Wilson will always have never exits a player, and when called upon, he will be there to defend his teammates.  However, the combination of a suspension ridden past with the growing maturity of a player is proving beneficial to the Capitals and fans alike.  We will never know what Bettman and the Department said to Wilson unless he ever discloses that himself, but there is firm reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, a spark of fear for the reputation and longevity of his career were at risk.  With the direction of excellent coaching and natural ability, Tom Wilson can (and should) continue to grow as an asset to the club.  Professional athletes absolutely hate to miss playing time, especially when it’s forced, so the reflection of his own actions costing the team (remember, the Capitals took off when he came back) most definitely had a large factor in what we’ve seen from him so far.

​So, was a lengthy suspension actually beneficial to Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals? Was severe supplementary discipline the push he needed to begin applying his full potential?  When you were a kid, being grounded for a couple of days wasn’t so bad, and many were likely to recommit whatever act landed them in hot water in the first place.  Take a teenager’s car away for a month, and you can bet that they’d be incredibly careful not to get themselves into that position again.  It seems relevant to Wilson and where he is in his career.  Signing a great contract off of a Stanley Cup championship, just to be reputed as a goon?  Is missing over 15 games for one hit worth it to him and his teammates?  All signs point to Wilson steering away from that, and Caps fans should hope that the trend continues.

​Tom Wilson is on pace for a career year, even with his suspension and concussion injury.  Once again, we continue to see the metamorphosis that is No. 43’s career so far.

By Brennan Reidy

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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