In the summer following the 2023-24 regular season, Tom Wilson will be eligible for unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. Wilson has been a mainstay on the Capitals roster since the 2013-14 season, after making a few appearances in the playoffs in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season.
Over the span of that near-decade with the Capitals, Wilson went from an initial depth, enforcer role with a penchant for the big hit, to a legitimate top-six power forward scoring threat. With that developed offensive ability combined with a bruising playstyle and 6’4″ 220-pound frame, Wilson is one of the most unique players in the NHL today.
When Wilson’s current contract ends, he’ll be 30 years old, which for the typical NHLer, is right at the end of their prime. On the other hand, Wilson’s production has only gotten better in the past few seasons. The main question for Wilson will be how his game will age as he enters into his early 30s, where bumps, bruises, and nagging injuries take a bit longer and hurt a bit more.
In this post, we’ll try to evaluate Wilson’s performance and potentially project what his next contract will look like when he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency. Statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference. Contract information is courtesy of CapFriendly. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our analytics glossary.
Value and Contract Comparable
When Wilson was drafted, his NHL comparable was Milan Lucic, then of the Boston Bruins. Lucic and Wilson do have similar skillsets: the ability to score, play a tough physical brand of hockey, and have an intimidating presence on the ice.
Lucic inked a 7-year, $6M annual cap hit with Edmonton entering his age 28 season. Here’s what Lucic’s three years prior to him signing that deal in Edmonton look like, compared to Wilson’s prior three seasons:
Both players were pretty effective offensively, with Lucic posting some higher point totals as a result of more games played (COVID shortened seasons played a factor here). Both Wilson and Lucic had value scaling up towards the end of that three-year period, since they were both in the prime years of their career.
It’s not necessarily out of the realm of possibilities for Wilson’s next contract to look a lot like Lucic’s. Here’s a look at Wilson’s last four seasons in terms of Goals Above Replacement (GAR):
Here’s how his GAR values played out on a more granular level:
Not only was last season Wilson’s best offensively since signing his last contract, but it was also his best defensively. On top of that, he’s gotten better at drawing penalties, but has tended to take penalties at a higher rate as well. Overall, Wilson’s value is trending upwards.
One thing that makes the Wilson contract situation interesting is the state of the roster after next season. After next season, the only players that are signed to a contract are Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie, Nic Dowd, John Carlson, Darcy Kuemper, and Charlie Lindgren. With all of those roster spots open, the Capitals will have plenty of cap space to work with, to the tune of $23,870,001.
On the other hand, the Capitals will have to fill in those roster spots and spend money to make that happen. A large portion of that roster uncertainty depends on how the Capitals perform this upcoming season. Will the Caps spend money to try to continue to make the playoffs at the twilight of the Ovechkin era? Or will younger talent start to enter the roster, making Wilson a potential trade candidate?
If Wilson were a free agent today, Evolving Hockey projects his next contract to be an 8 year deal with a cap hit of $6.153M, if he were to stay with the Capitals. If he were to hit free agency and sign with another team, they project his contract to be 7 years with a cap hit of $6.669M.
Ultimately, Wilson will be 30 years old when his current contract expires. He’ll miss substantial time this season due to an ACL tear, and who knows what to expect in terms of performance when he returns to the lineup when he has recovered from his injury? It would be surprising to see Wilson get a 7- or 8-year deal at the age of 30, especially since he plays such a heavy physical brand of hockey.
Lucic was a sound comparison here because of the similar play style, but Lucic really hit a wall in terms of production after signing that 7-year deal with Edmonton. In three seasons in Edmonton prior to being traded to Calgary, Lucic cracked the 20 goal and 50-point mark once. His production dropped considerably after the 2016-17 season (the first year of his deal), where he posted a 23 goal, 50-point season. After that, he’s had seasons with point marks of: 34, 20, 20, 23, and 21.
There will be no shortage of suitors for Wilson if he hits unrestricted free agency at the end of his current contract. The Capitals surely would want him to stick around, but 31 other teams would want a crack at the power forward as well.
With so many suitors, the price and the term on a contract will rise to meet the market demand. The 7-year and ballpark cap hit of $6.5M a season doesn’t seem out of reach as a result if he hits unrestricted free agency. The Capitals will need a leadership figure and a veteran presence for a younger roster after the current core ages out, and Wilson certainly fits that mold.
The question will be how long and how expensive will the Capitals be willing to go on a new Wilson contract when the era of playoff caliber teams end and the rebuilding process begins?
By Justin Trudel