On August 4th, the Capitals and rugged winger Tom Wilson agreed to a seven-year extension with a $6.5M cap hit that will expire after the 2030-31 season when Wilson is 37 years-old. This deal likely solidifies Wilson as a career Capital, and many are envisioning Wilson as the team’s captain-in-waiting until Alex Ovechkin calls it a career.
The reactions to the extension have been a bit polarizing across hockey fandom and national media. It feels like Caps fans are pretty excited about the extension and personally, I was happy to see the cap hit where it landed than where I had expected it to be.
Others, especially folks that focus a bit more on advanced analytics, have compared this deal to the contract that the Edmonton Oilers handed to Milan Lucic (seven-year deal with a $6M cap hit) back in the free agency class of 2016.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at the value that Wilson brings in terms of advanced analytics. This is going to be a bit of a different angle for me, personally, when I write analytical posts, because there’s going to be a bit of a conversation on the intangibles.
Also, since most folks (myself included) think that Wilson is the no-brainer next captain of the Capitals, we’re going to compare his new contract’s cap hit to the rest of the current captains around the league.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz, and Hockey Reference. The salary cap information used in this post is courtesy of CapFriendly. If you’d like to learn more about the analytical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
Wilson’s performance over the past three seasons
Let’s get some box score statistics out of the way, first. Over the past three seasons, Wilson has played in 158 games, scoring 50 goals and 57 points (.677 points per game pace). In those 158 games, he’s tallied 442 hits, which shows just how much of a physical presence he is on the ice. That being said, there’s some rational concerns about investing in a very physical forward, long-term.
Obviously, this isn’t exactly what we want to see from a decently pricey investment in a core piece of your team. That being said, projections using advanced analytics are just one tool in the immense tool shed that is projecting out player value over the course of a player’s career.
There’s been a mixed bag of results in terms of using advanced analytics to project future player value, and in my opinion, it’s extremely difficult to use a statistical model to accurately project any player’s performance over time, especially from the 2023-24 season through the 2030-31 season.
Additionally, it feels like Wilson’s projections might have been negatively affected by last season, where Wilson missed extended time due to recovery from a procedure to repair his ACL, as well as some time missed due to a lower body injury as a result of a blocked shot. On top of the injuries, he came back to a team that was a shell of itself and missed the playoffs for the first time in about a decade.
My rationale for why last season might have tanked Wilson’s projections a bit can be observed in his isolated impact charts from the 2021-22 season to the 2022-23 season. Let’s start with last season’s first:
Offensively was a bit rough last season, where the Capitals were generating 10% fewer xGF/60 with Wilson on the ice versus off the ice. On top of that, his defensive production faltered, with the Capitals giving up 7% more xGA/60 with Wilson on the ice. That being said, he wasn’t really being deployed with the most defensively responsible linemates, so it’s hard to really “blame” Wilson here.
Now, here’s his isolated impact from the 2021-22 season:
Offensively, he’s still trailing a bit behind the Capitals’ team xGF/60 production with Wilson off the ice, but look at his defensive production. His deployments resulted in a 8% decrease in xGA/60. Do we really think that Wilson hit a cliff defensively after the 2021-22 season and his 7% increase in xGA/60 over the Caps’ team production with Wilson off the ice is the new normal? I’m skeptical of that, considering Wilson is only 29 and it’s not quite like he’s on the verge of retirement or anything.
To get a better look at Wilson, and what he may end up being on this contract, here’s a 3 year view of his Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM):
We still see a very productive forward when it comes to scoring goals, which is certainly the most important statistic when judging the success of forwards. He’s a solid contributor on the power play, too.
When it comes to five-on-five performance, especially in expected goals for (xGF/60), expected goals against (xGA/60), and Corsi For (CF/60), it feels like that may be more of an embodiment of a systematic issue in the team’s strategy more than an indictment on Wilson’s quality of play.
We’ve seen plenty from this team during the Laviolette era where they’ve struggled in generating possession or generating quality chances, and at times last season, both. This was a team in desperate need of a fresh voice, outlook, and strategy behind the bench, and perhaps Spencer Carbery can get more out of this lineup than Laviolette could.
Here’s Wilson’s player card from Evolving Hockey, which compares his performance in multiple facets of areas to the rest of the league:
Wilson has been rather solid offensively, posting in the 67th percentile among forwards in even-strength offensive GAR. The defensive value has dropped a bit, but when your primary linemates over the past few seasons have been Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, it’s not too surprising to see some struggles in that area.
What we’re looking at with Wilson is a player you feel comfortable playing in all game situations. He can contribute on the power play and the penalty kill. He can help score a timely goal, or make a momentum changing play with his physical skill set.
How does Wilson’s cap hit stack up to NHL captains?
Like I mentioned earlier, Wilson seems to be the captain-in-waiting for the Capitals, and it would probably shock nobody if he has the C on his sweater after Ovechkin hangs up the skates. With his new contract’s cap hit coming in at $6.5M, how does his cap hit stack up to captains around the league?
Here’s a chart showing how Wilson would stack up to NHL captains’ contracts today:
Wilson would have the fourth least expensive cap hit for a captain in the league if he were to be captain of the Caps today and his cap hit was taking effect this season. You could also argue that the three less expensive cap hits behind him are for veteran players that have either been with their teams long term, or helped lead their teams through the rebuilding process.
Overall, there’s a pretty clear delineation of the types of players that are named captain of their respective franchises. It’s either the true face of the franchise (looking at most of the players here), veterans who have been mainstays of their current club, or purely veteran presences that have led their teams through a rebuild.
Interestingly enough, I think Wilson is kind of a combination of the two latter options. He’s going to be the captain of the Capitals when the inevitable rebuild arrives (likely after Ovechkin retires) and by the end of his extension, would have been with the Caps for 18 seasons.
Is it possible that Wilson’s contract becomes an anchor for the Capitals in the future? Sure. It feels like the absolute floor of the contract value you get out of a player like Wilson is the Milan Lucic contract. Obviously, that didn’t work out for the Oilers long term, but the situations of the teams that signed those contracts are completely different. The Oilers were at the beginning of their competitive window with players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Capitals are at the end (or maybe past) their competitive window, and after the 2025-26 season (Ovechkin’s final season, perhaps), the Capitals only have three players under contract (Wilson, Dylan Strome, and Darcy Kuemper).
By that time, we could see a salary cap ceiling nearing $100M, and a $6.5M cap hit is peanuts at that point. On top of that, it’s completely conceivable that the Capitals are in the midst of a rebuild at that point in time.
In my opinion, the Caps are getting plenty of value out of Wilson at $6.5M for the next few seasons of last ditch efforts to make the playoffs with this core group, and you’re really paying the price down the line. Is it likely that we have the same Tom Wilson on the ice this season versus in 2030? Not at all, but he’s the type of player you want around to lead young players in a rebuild. He’s won at the highest level, has played with some of the best players in the world, and knows what it takes to be a champion.
By Justin Trudel