After getting suspended four times in a span of 105 games, including a 20-game suspension for a hit to the head in the final game of the 2018 NHL preseason, it was clear that something had to change in Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson’s game.
After his return, the 25-year old became a fixture on the Capitals’ top-line with captain Alex Ovechkin center Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov, opening up space for the line, helping cover up Ovechkin and/or Kuznetsov’s defensive deficiencies, and taking the next step in his scoring production.
While Wilson continues to lead the Capitals in penalty minutes, his time in the box per game has gone down in each of the past three seasons, going from 2.4 in 2017-18 to 2.0 last year. It has dropped even more significantly this season, falling below one minute per game (0.9). Still, Wilson has still been a physical force on the ice as his average of 3.2 hits-per-game this season matches his average from each of the past two seasons.
Wilson is also sacrificing his body more without hitting as he is on pace to set a career-high in blocked shots (one per game) this season after topping the 50-block mark in each of the past two.
Wilson has also stepped up offensively, shooting the puck more to create more high-danger opportunities for Ovechkin. His shots-per-game average has gone from 1.6 to 2.1 to 2.2 in the past three seasons. He has been rewarded for the change as his shooting percentage of 18.2% this season is better than his impressive 16.9% shooting rate last year and 11.4% the previous season. The payoff has been impressive: Wilson has 30 goals and 56 points in his past 82 games.
The Capitals have also been able to turn to Wilson whenever a line has been slumping. Adding Wilson to a new line has proven to be a sparkplug. Most recently, Wilson has jumpstarted the second-line with Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana. Kuznetsov has three goals and nine points in the five games since Wilson was added, and Vrana has five goals and 10 points in the last eight games.
Before getting held off of the scoresheet in the Capitals’ 2-1 shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday, Wilson was on a five-game point streak where he tallied four goals and nine points, recording multi-point games in three straight outings. He is currently on pace for 33 goals and 66 points this season, which would shatter the 40 points he had in 63 games last year. His +8 rating is second among the Capitals’ forwards behind Kuznetsov (+9).
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Wilson has acknowledged that he has become more disciplined on the ice, passing up opportunities to level a big hit in an effort to stay out of the Department of Player Safety’s doghouse. After missing the first 16 games of last season due to suspension, Wilson’s penalty minutes dropped from a career-high 187 in 2017-18 to 128 last year, a career-low. He is currently on pace to miss the 100-penalty minute mark for the first time in his NHL career as he is on pace to finish just below 74 penalty minutes.
Since the Capitals acquired defenseman Radko Gudas and forward Garnet Hathaway in an effort to match the St. Louis Blues’ physicality, there is less pressure on Wilson to be the enforcer he once was. That has translated on the ice as Wilson has yet to receive a fighting major this season.
With the loss of defenseman Matt Niskanen over the offseason, Wilson has also taken more of a leadership role as he was rewarded with the honor of alternate captaincy a few times during the preseason. The losses of Niskanen and forward Andre Burakovsky have also increased his power-play time by an average of 24 seconds per game compared to last year and he has already tied his career-high in power-play goals (two) and is one point shy of his career-high of three power-play points. The loss of Kuznetsov for the first three games of the regular season due to a suspension was another factor for his increase of power-play ice time.
What makes Wilson’s performance this season impressive is that he has been able to elevate his game despite taking on the same workload on the penalty kill (2:14 per game) that he did last year.
Ever since returning from his lengthy suspension last year, Wilson has turned into one of the best power forwards in the league, becoming a mainstay in the Capitals’ top-six forward group. While he changes the game with his physical edge, he can also make a difference with his offensive production, which makes him one of a kind in the NHL. If Wilson can keep up his hot start, then the 14-2-4 Capitals are going to continue being a tough out for the rest of the NHL.
By Harrison Brown