With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we continue with our numerical player-by-player roster analysis.
No. 43 Tom Wilson
Age: 22 (turns 23 on March 29, 2017)
Penalty minutes: 163
Time on ice: 12:54
Playoff stats: 12 games, 0 goals, 1 assists, minus-3, 13 PIM, 12:01
Contract status: Restricted free agent. Earned $832,500 last season after earning $925,000 previous two seasons due to signing bonus.
From a production standpoint, it’s probably fair to say the Capitals over-valued Tom Wilson (14 goals, 36 assists in 231 games) when they made him the 16th player taken in the 2012 NHL draft.
Especially when you consider the Sharks took Tomas Hertl (49 goals, 53 assists in 200 games) one pick later and the Penguins took defenseman Olli Maatta (16 goals, 41 assists in 165 games) six picks later.
From that 2012 draft class, only three players -- Nail Yakupov (1st overall), Alex Galchenyuk (3rd overall) and Hampus Lindholm (6th overall) -- have played in more NHL games than Wilson and no one even comes close to Wilson’s 486 penalty minutes.
But if you believe general manager Brian MacLellan, the Caps did a disservice to Wilson when they promoted him to the NHL at the age of 19 instead of letting him play one more season with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL.
Since joining the Caps three seasons ago, Wilson’s ice time and impact has slowly but steadily increased. His average ice time climbed from 7:56 (and 151 penalty minutes) as a rookie under Adam Oates to 10:56 (172 penalty minutes) in his first season under Barry Trotz, and 12:54 (163 penalty minutes) this season.
Wilson’s offense has also been on a gradual incline, from three goals, seven assists and 63 shots as a rookie to four goals,13 assists and 79 shots as a sophomore and seven goals, 16 assists and 99 shots this season.
“Individually, I felt like it was a good year,” Wilson said. “More responsibility. I was on the penalty kill (1:35 per game) and got a lot more minutes this year and was part of the third line for pretty much all year until the last little stretch and that was huge.
“Ever since I came into the league I said whatever the coaches tell me or give me I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team. I feel like I had a pretty good role throughout the year to help the team on any given night. It still sucks and we would have liked to keep going here, but individually, it was a good year and as a group it was probably one of the best seasons. You ask anyone, it was so fun coming to the rink every day. One of the best seasons a player can have in this league, which is why it kind of hurts so much right now.”
Down the stretch and during the playoffs, Wilson’s role diminished, dropping from a third line to a fourth line and seeing his ice time diminish by about one minute. His one assist in 12 playoff games further emphasized the Caps’ need to upgrade their bottom six set of forwards, especially when measured against the Penguins’ potent third line of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin, which enters Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final with a combined 19 goals and 35 points in 20 playoff games.
“Credit to them,” Wilson said. “They had four lines that were deep. All year we arguably had better depth than any other team in the whole league. Pittsburgh had a great identity with whoever you want to say is their bottom six. Bonino scores the winner (in Game 6) and his line contributes a lot toward the series. Not to say our lines didn’t but we need to get back to the drawing board and chip in.
“Hopefully, next year I can take on a little bit more responsibility as a player and keep growing. I think as long as I continue to improve from year to year that will be big for my game and help the team.
“I think I just need to continue to grow offensively. This year was big as far as becoming a defensive player, a penalty killer. That kind of responsibility of being out there in the last minute of games and Trotzy trusting me, the coaching staff trusting me. That trust is there now. That’s kind of the base of what you need and from there you can go and become more of an offensive threat and develop your game more.
“Next year I look to kind of do that a little bit. I felt like I had a good first series against Philly. I felt like I really had an effect on the game, an effect on the series.
“I think I could have been better in the Pittsburgh series. It was a different brand of hockey. It was fast and a skilled game and we needed a little more production from our bottom six. The pressure is always on the top six guys. In the media, they’re the ones that take the fall. ‘He didn’t score, and he didn’t score.’ It’s nice I don’t have that pressure, but at the end of the day we need to chip in a little bit. Talking with (Jay Beagle), we’ve got to take that on and take that responsibility to chip in more and contribute to those types of games.”
The Capitals agree and must decide this summer if they need to acquire a player with net presence or improve their overall team speed. MacLellan would like Wilson to be the player the Capitals lost in Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, each of whom enjoyed productive post-seasons.
“I think it’s on us to turn Tom Wilson into Joel Ward,” MacLellan said. “It’s on Tom and on us to turn him into that kind of guy that has a net-front presence, that finds loose pucks, finds rebounds, plays good along the wall. I think Tom is our answer to that.
“We let Ward and Brouwer go. We replaced them with (T.J.) Oshie and (Justin) Williams. We got a little more skill in our top six and we lost a little bit of that net-front presence, which, however you look at it, better or worse, you do need one guy, I think, that does it.”
MacLellan said Wilson “has a ways to go” before he can establish himself as a net-front goal scorer but believes he’s capable of getting to that “next level.”
Wilson’s contract negotiations with the Capitals this summer should be interesting. He likely will be seeking a long-term contract worth an average of last least $2 million. The team likely will counter with a shorter term at a lower value. But it seems clear Wilson will be a big part of the Capitals’ future moving forward and he’s excited about what lies ahead.
“Every year teams change, but who knows what’s going to happen and who’s going to leave and who’s going to stick around?” Wilson said. “The core will be the same and I think that’s a great thing. We brought in pieces this year, like Osh and Willie, guys that made a huge difference in this locker room and kind of re-defined the core and the meaning of this team. I think that’s great we’re going to have that core.
“It’s been a learning experience for us. It was tough. Last year you came in and you didn’t really have any expectation. New coaching staff, didn’t make the playoffs the year before, and you come into that year and succeed and you do really well and it was a tough ending (second round exit) to last year. You come into this year and there’s expectation. You’re in first place all year and there’s so much hype around the team and then it just ends.
“We did a lot of good things this year and we just have to use this feeling as a learning experience. I think the one thing we can do better is when it comes down to it, it’s a playoff game, it’s Game 6. We were a great regular season team, but I think we had yet to play our best hockey in the postseason. We just have to use that as a learning experience to know that when it comes down to it at the end of the year in playoffs, you need to make sure you’re playing your best hockey.”
That’s why, even at 22 years old, Wilson said the Caps need to seize the opportunity in front of them before it disappears.
“You grow up watching hockey and hear stories,” he said. “There are family friends that played 15 years in the league and never had a shot at winning the Cup. It’s the hardest trophy to win. A lot of guys in our locker room haven’t. It’s an empty feeling we left out there. But we have that core. We have the same guys. It just comes down to winning that one battle and winning that one game. To get down 3-0 in a Game 6 is not really acceptable. We were a great regular season team and had a lot of really good moments but when it comes down to it in the postseason we need to win battles and win the game that matters and we didn’t do that. That’s why we’re standing here. We need to realize that next year we’ll have the same opportunity with the same core group and we’ve got to get the job done.”