Photo: Joe Sargent/NHLI Via Getty Images
Capitals right wing Tom Wilson is a lot of things to the Capitals as a player: a hard worker, fantastic teammate, physical presence, defensive commodity, and offensive weapon. But to other teams, their players, fan base, and even some media members, he is no more than a player who only makes a living as a player by delivering dirty, dangerous checks, a predatory player who does only wrong. Their pure hatred and dislike of Wilson has led to a thought process in which, when Wilson and the Capitals come to town, he is their sole focus, a worry, like an insatiable itch that won’t go away. It is this effect that has made Wilson one of the most high-profile players in the NHL and a commodity for the Caps.
Wilson’s value to the Caps is known by all who follow the team on a daily basis and who see the effect he has on the ice and off. Wilson’s six-year, $31 million contract signed last summer was not only as a result of his then-career best 35 points (which he has matched and looks set to pass this season), but because of the intangibles he provides on the ice. And while Wilson’s disciplinary history is a blemish mark on his resume and the cause of constant consternation among opposing teams, fans, and coaches, opponents’ seeming obsession with Wilson and their mindset that he is solely a dirty player or goon has caused some to believe that No. 43 is a problem that needs all their attention.
During the Capitals’ second-round playoff series matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, Wilson delivered a check to Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese that left the Penguins’ forward with a broken jaw and concussion, an injury and hit that drew the ire of Penguins fans, players, and even General Manager Jim Rutherford, who told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following Game 3:
“When Jamie challenged Wilson, he couldn’t run quick enough to get away from him, until, of course, the referees get in close, then [Wilson] comes back and says something to him.”
Wilson would respond to Rutherford’s comments earlier this season when he dropped the gloves with Oleksiak in a game against the Penguins in December 2018, after which the Penguins’ GM took issue with how Wilson dropped the gloves with Oleksiak, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey:
“All I know is, in that fight, Wilson didn’t even give Oleksiak a chance to get his gloves off,”
The Penguins’ General Manager isn’t the only one in the Pittsburgh organization who has taken an issue with Wilson. Captain Sidney Crosby has offered his opinion on Wilson in the past, and the Pens’ recent acquisition of defenseman Erik Gudbranson was seen by many as the Penguins’ “answer” to Wilson. In the Caps’ eventual 5-3 loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, Wilson and Gudbranson came together a number of times, but neither dropped the gloves, something some Penguins fans on Twitter took as Wilson being “scared” or “intimidated” by the Pens’ blueliner
It was great to see Erik Gudbranson take Tom Wilson to the ice. I think I saw some fear in Wilson’s eyes.
— Greg Hott (@GregHott1) March 13, 2019
Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that Wilson has the entirety of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fanbase and organization completely concentrated on him is when a photo of a Penguins’ fan with a No. 43 Capitals jersey with the custom name plate “Trash” surfaced on social media. What’s telling about this is that the jersey in question is an authentic adidas jersey, which goes for $250.00+ USD on the NHL’s official online store.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) March 13, 2019
It’s not only Pittsburgh that Wilson has affected. Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves, whose rivalry with Wilson dates back to Wilson’s rookie season in 2013-14, when Reaves was a member of the St. Louis Blues, also has developed a dislike for Wilson. The feud escalated quickly earlier this season, when Reaves, now a member of the Golden Knights, delivered a blindside hit to Wilson in a game in Vegas, the first contest between the two teams in Vegas since the Caps’ Stanley Cup win last June. Days after the game, it was revealed autographed photos of Reaves standing over a downed Wilson were being sold, with the message “He ran into a lion in the jungle”, a quote Reaves told reporters after the game (from which he was ejected). Reaves and the Golden Knights ensured the dealer selling the photos destroyed them, but it underlined Wilson’ ability to madden his opponents to the extreme.
To the Capitals, Tom Wilson will always be a valuable member of the team who does every little thing on the ice right. There is no arguing that when he is on the ice, he makes the Caps a better team, and his performance this season indicates that. To the rest of the league, he will always be a player who they love to hate but would love to have on any other team. His disciplinary past will always follow him, but the fact he is on the verge of his first 20-goal season, a former first-round pick, and playing on the Capitals’ top-line with stars in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin says more about his transformation and role as a player than what others may think of him. It’s the Tom Wilson Effect in a nutshell, and for the Caps, it’s a blessing through and through.
By Michael Fleetwood