ARLINGTON, Va. – Oskar Sundqvist skated down the left side of the ice with the puck on his stick. As he entered the offensive zone, he cut to the center of the ice. There he received an unexpected and thunderous hit from the back-checking Tom Wilson that sent him sprawling to the ice. In that instant, a meaningless preseason finale on Sept. 30 suddenly became very meaningful.
That hit forced Sundqvist to miss the first eight games of the St. Louis Blues’ season. It cost Wilson more time off the ice as he was suspended for the first 20. A successful appeal meant that he served only 16 of those 20 games, but the discussion about his style of play had already started again.
Wilson, 25, is one of the most polarizing figures in the NHL. After four suspensions during his NHL career, there are many who see him as little more than a goon whose only contribution to his team are fights and dirty hits.
But that’s not what the Washington Capitals see.
“I don't really see him as that player anymore,” Andre Burakovsky said. “I think he was more like that when he was in his two, three first years and I think he has changed a lot and became top-six player.”
"I go around the league and I talk to coaches, I talk to managers, I talk to owners and the one thing that's really apparent, there's not a team in the league that wouldn't want a player like Tom Wilson," Pierre McGuire said, on-air analyst for NBC Sports.
As a big, physical forward playing in an era in which the NHL continues to dial back the physical play, Wilson certainly stands out.
At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, Wilson is a big-bodied player. Add that to his strong skating, and he is one of the top physical players in the league.
That, along with his history, mean he faces frequent scrutiny from officials and the league.
“It's unfortunate for him the situation he's in, how careful he has to be and he can't just play his game because he's too big and strong,” T.J. Oshie said.
Washington recognized the potential in Wilson early. In 2012, the Capitals selected Wilson in the first round, 16th overall in the NHL Draft. Playing junior hockey for the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL, Wilson initially proved the team’s faith well-founded.
After getting drafted, his offensive production the next season more than doubled from 27 points to 58. His physical prowess also earned him a call-up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013, where he made his NHL debut, playing in three games.
Wilson’s development stalled soon after as he was not returned to his junior team the following season and then head coach Adam Oates played sparingly in a fourth-line role.
To his teammates, however, the potential was obvious.
“When I first got here, he was playing kind of fourth-line penalty kill minutes,” Oshie said who was traded to Washington in 2015. “You could see his potential. He's approached every situation and every game and every year and every opportunity he's had the right way and it's lead to a lot of success for him. In turn it's lead to a lot of success for our team.”
Wilson remained a fourth-line player primarily until the 2017-18 season, when head coach Barry Trotz moved him to the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. That line, and Wilson’s role on it, was instrumental in helping the team win its first Stanley Cup. Wilson scored five goals and 10 assists in 21 games and was rewarded in the offseason with a six-year contract worth $31 million, hardly the type of contract handed out to fourth-line goons.
Despite coming into the season with a top-line role and a big new contract, however, Wilson has not been able to escape the reputation that has been thrust upon him by some outside the organization.
“There's a lot of opinions nowadays and obviously anyone can really voice an opinion nowadays,” Wilson said. “That's the way it works. It doesn't really matter to me. I just want to go out there and help this team and help this organization.
“I've played a physical style my whole life, so it wasn't like all of a sudden now is the first time that I make a big hit that those opinions happen. It is what it is.”
Those opinions, however, never seem to bother Wilson or his teammates.
“If he's a villain for them, he's a hero for us,” Oshie said. “I think he probably takes a little pride in that and if anything, the more you rile up Tom, the worse it's going to be for your team.”
But when that reputation affects how referees call a game or how Wilson is judged by the league and the Department of Player Safety, that does matter.
With four suspensions in his career, Wilson is under intense scrutiny from the league. That has led to some teammates feeling Wilson can be unfairly targeted by officials in games.
“Once a guy gets one suspension or maybe makes one mistake, everything after that automatically he's a predator,” Oshie said. “Tom, unfortunately I guess you could say, is bigger, stronger and faster than a lot of guys in the league. As the league gets younger and gets faster, a lot of these kids coming in are skating around with their heads down and they think maybe because people couldn't catch them in juniors that they're not going to catch them up here, but there's big guys that can skate and have good timing. I think it's unfortunate for him that he gets labeled that way.”
Wilson has gone to great lengths to study the game and learn just where the line between physical and dirty is. He has sat down and studied video with the head of the DoPS, George Parros, and has made his living in the NHL partly by being able to dance right up to that line, but not cross it.
There is no denying, however, that he has made mistakes in the past, the hit to Sundqvist being a notable example.
With a Stanley Cup ring, top-line role, a new contract and everything to prove heading into the 2018-19 season, Wilson suddenly found himself facing a massive suspension.
“That's kind of the tough part about it is you get that contract and that vote of faith from your organization and right off the get-go you have to sit on the sidelines,” Wilson said. “That sucked and it wasn't ideal. I wasn't out there helping the team win and just tried to make the most of it when I got back and pick up anywhere I could to help the team get wins and make up for lost time.”
“I can't imagine how that played out for him really,” Burakovsky said. “I know it would be tough for me to first of all lose all those games when you're so excited coming from training camp. You just want to get it started and then you sit out for another 16. It's got to be tough mentally too.”
Since then, Wilson has had a shorter window to prove himself and needed to make up for lost time. By all accounts, he has done a heck of a job.
“What people don't realize is he's turned himself into an amazingly important player,” McGuire said, “Not just because he's physical and robust and can challenge people that way, he's an outstanding point producer, he's a tremendous linemate, he creates room for his linemates in a legal fashion, he's a top penalty killer.”
Wilson put together the best offensive season of his career, scoring 22 goals and 18 assists despite playing in only 63 games. He was one of seven Caps players to score 20 goals on the season.
“I think he's become one of the best power forwards in the game,” former player and NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick said. “Even on top of that maybe the most ultimate power forward in the game because whenever you score 20, you hit as hard as he does, you intimidate other players as much as he does and you can fight anybody in the league the way that he does, I don't know if there's anybody in the league that has all that combined in one body like Tom Wilson has.”
The Caps always saw the potential in him, but he was never going to live up to that potential if he did not change his game. Whether or not Wilson and his teammates thought his hits were crossing the line, the NHL sent a clear message with his massive suspension after the Sundqvist hit: Change the way you play or else.
Since returning from the suspension, Wilson has avoided further suspension. He was issued a match penalty and ejected for a hit on New Jersey Devils Brett Seney in November, a penalty the league reviewed and rescinded soon after.
Analysts see a clear change in his mentality as the reason for his clean play.
“What we've all known Tom Wilson to be is a very physical hockey player,” NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May said. “Where he's changed his game in that regard is he's backing off certain hits where he could absolutely take guys out and there would be no tomorrow for them. On a lot of those when he knows he can get them he's skated away, he's checked the puck, he's not even lightly bumped them. He's doing the right thing, he's not finishing guys off when they're in a vulnerable position on the boards. I just think he's growing and knowing that the referees are watching him, the league is watching him and it's made him a much better player.”
One season, however, does not erase Wilson’s reputation when it comes to the league. He was suspended twice in the 2017 preseason for a hit on Blues forward Robert Thomas and again for Blues forward Samuel Blais. The second suspension cost him the first four games of the 2017-18 season. Wilson avoided any further supplemental discipline for the rest of the regular season, but again drew the ire of the DoPS with a hit to the head of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That hit cost Wilson three playoff games.
Even though Wilson’s 20-game suspension for the Sundqvist hit was reduced to 14 games, as a repeat offender, his next suspension will cost him even more.
Wilson’s recent play won’t help him or the Caps if he delivers another illegal hit.
“It’s not been a one-time conversation,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s something that I accentuate some of the times that he’s made some different decisions. Showed them to him and continue to remind him the effectiveness he has and how much our team needs him on the ice and yet still being able to be a very difficult player to play against. Again, as he continues to grow as a player in the league and going through different things it’s something that will always be tested about him probably for the next few years.”
You do not have to remind Wilson.
Another suspension could cost him half a season or a significant amount of playoff time. That’s not just bad for him personally, but bad for the Caps considering how important a player he has become for them.
As for changing his reputation, that continues be an uphill battle. Being a league villain may be something Wilson is never able to overcome. But so long as he continues to shut out the criticism from opposing fans, that won’t affect him one bit.
“Wilson has done an incredible job of just focusing on the game and getting rid of the noise,” May said. “He's not a Twitter guy, he's not a social media guy. The refs call what they call, but the reason he was suspended is maybe he wasn't aware of that enough. But what he's done is just concentrate on playing hockey. He doesn't have to worry about the other players on other teams coming after him. There aren't any Tom Wilson's in the National Hockey League, there's one, and the Washington Capitals have him.”
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