This is a big season for Tom Wilson. As a former first-round pick whose career high is currently seven goals, the team is ready to see more production out of him. A four-game suspension is not the way he wanted things to start.
”It obviously wasn't the best start to the year for me,” Wilson said. “A little bit of adversity out of the gates.”
Everyone knows about Wilson’s physical presence on the ice. Chances are if you have not been following him throughout his career, you may think of Wilson as nothing more than a “goon,” a physical player who brings nothing more to the table than big hits and the occasional fight.
What you may not know, however, is that Wilson was a first-round draft pick in 2012 and it wasn’t because of his checking ability. In his last season in the OHL, Wilson tallied 58 points in 48 games.
If anyone doubts the impact Wilson can have on the team, they need only go back to the Caps’ playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Down 2-1 in the series, Washington entered a must-win situation in Game 4 on the road. Head coach Barry Trotz moved Wilson from the fourth line to the third and he responded with two goals and a goal-saving diving stop on the goal line as a puck trickled past Braden Holtby.
That’s the player the team was hoping to see more of this season.
“Enough people call you a goon, you want to get out there and prove to them that you can score some goals,” Wilson said to reporters after practice on Thursday. “That's always been a part of my game. There's always been that, can he play? Is he just physical? Can he play? I want to continue to develop my game. I want to continue to be rounded into that all-around player and now more than ever in hockey, you've got to be able to play, you've got to be able to produce offensively.”
This was the goal coming into the season, but a rough preseason made it hard for even the most optimistic Wilson supporter to defend his play.
Coming into the preseason, Wilson had never been suspended by the league. Now he has two suspensions to his name, the second of which cost him the first four games of the regular season.
The two suspensions were particularly frustrating to Wilson as someone who studies his own hits after games to make sure they remain clean.
“For the majority of four seasons you watch pretty much every one of my hits and frame by frame, tenth by tenth seconds and you can't find one thing that's wrong with it,” Wilson said. “They're textbook body checks broken down even slow.”
As Wilson now prepares to return to the Capitals’ lineup, he says he has gotten the message the league has tried to send him.
“It's my job to adapt,” Wilson said. “It's my job to kind of watch that and make sure that I'm finishing checks cleanly. The hitting is part of the game and it's part of my game and I'm going to continue to do it, I've just got to be a little bit smarter and make sure I'm out there with the team not kind of sitting in the stands watching.”
For his part, Trotz says he expects to see the same Wilson, just smarter.
“He's going to be a big body, hard to handle, he's going to be physical, he's going to be a good penalty killer, detailed, all those things. I don't expect him to change other than just some decisions on some of the guys coming in. He puts the little bit of you know who when they see him coming. He's a big man. He's a huge man who can really get around the ice and he hits like a truck.”
MORE CAPITALS: HOLTBY WAS NOT HAPPY ABOUT CROSBY'S HIT
Trotz said he anticipated Wilson to move into the third line at right wing to play alongside Lars Eller and Brett Connolly. Alex Chiasson practiced on the fourth line Thursday with Jay Beagle and Devante Smith-Pelly.
Wilson is going to get the bigger role he expected to spark the third line and he is hoping he can prove that he is more than just a physical player.
“I've still got 78 games ahead of us here,” Wilson said, “And I've got to make the most of those and make sure I kind of almost make up for lost time here and get after it.”