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‘If he’s a villain for them, he’s a hero for us:’ The complicated story of Tom Wilson

‘If he’s a villain for them, he’s a hero for us:’ The complicated story of Tom Wilson

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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Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Capitals center Alex Ovechkin is headed to China the week of Aug. 4 to serve as an international ambassador for the NHL, which is trying to grow its presence in that country. 

The NHL played two pre-season games in China last year between the Boston Bruins and the Calgary Flames. The year before the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks did the same.  

Ovechkin’s trip to Beijing will include youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings. 

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a statement. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL and the NHL Players Association are hoping to generate interest in the sport in the world’s largest market. The preseason games played in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have drawn good crowds the past two years. The goal is to develop grassroots hockey programs at all levels, but especially for kids.

One other aspect of the trip: It generates publicity if the NHL decides to allow its players to return to the Winter Olympics in 2022 when they are hosted by Beijing. That issue needs to be worked out in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations over the next year. NHL players had participated in every Olympic Games since Nagano, Japan in 1998 until the league refused to let players go to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year.   

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: What adjustments will coach Todd Reirden make in his second season?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: What adjustments will coach Todd Reirden make in his second season?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2. 

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.  

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.   

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we analyze coach Todd Reirden, who was always going to have a difficult job in his first season as Capitals’ head coach given the expectations. 

The question going into 2019-2020: What lessons does Reirden pull from last season, how does a year running his own bench infuse his tactics this time around and what changes, if any, does he make in player management?

There’s nowhere to go but down when you win a Stanley Cup. You can’t do any better. Reirden knew that when he took over for Barry Trotz after Washington won the title in 2018. In many ways, he kept the ship pointed in the right direction as a rookie coach. The Capitals won their fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division title. 

But the Stanley Cup playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes was a disappointment. With the Hurricanes going on to sweep Trotz and the New York Islanders in the second round there was an opportunity there for another deep playoff run and Reirden’s team wasted it.

There is plenty of good to build on. Yes, Reirden inherited a strong hand given that almost every player from a championship roster returned. But let’s not pretend everything ran smooth all year. Washington had a seven-game winless streak in January to sit on during the All-Star break. 

If you’re going to withhold credit for a talented roster that in some areas can run on autopilot, you also have to acknowledge that Reirden performed the same magic Trotz did the year before: He halted an ugly losing streak that could have sent the season spinning in a dangerous direction.  

The Capitals returned from the break and a bye week on Feb. 1 at 27-17-6. They were three points behind the Islanders in second place in the Metropolitan Division – though still six points from falling out of a playoff spot. Their position, if not alarming, was precarious. 

But Reirden’s team recovered to go 8-4-1 before the NHL trade deadline and then caught fire with help from some shrewd additions by GM Brian MacLellan. Washington finished 13-5-1 and won the Metro again.

Reirden’s crew shook off another ragged start (8-7-3) and for the second year in a row surged in late November and December. In general he gave his top players, especially Alex Ovechkin, more minutes than in previous years under Trotz. You can’t really say that backfired since Ovechkin had a dominant playoff series against Carolina. So did Nicklas Backstrom. Those plus-30 players didn’t look spent in April even if some of their teammates did. 

Maybe you can ding Reirden on the margins. Wouldn’t his fourth line have been harder to play against with Dmitrij Jaskin in the lineup? Did he bail on Andre Burakovsky too quickly? Did he not bail on Chandler Stephenson soon enough? 

But those weren’t season-changing decisions. Burakovsky wasn’t producing until the trade deadline passed and he relaxed a little, Stephenson’s penalty killing was necessary. Jaskin being glued to the bench was somewhat baffling giving that his underlying possession numbers were always strong, but he also produced zero offensively. 

In the end, assuming his players don’t fall off a cliff this season, Reirden will have a few obvious areas to address. There was a strain of thought around the NHL last spring that the Capitals were too wedded to what worked for them during the regular season and never really adjusted to how the Hurricanes were determined to play. 

That’s an age-old conundrum in the playoffs, of course. Change too much and you’ll be accused of panicking. But it was hard to ignore how badly Washington was outplayed on the road against the Hurricanes. And Carolina had a rookie head coach itself in long-time NHLer Rod Brind’Amour, who famously said during the series that coaching was “overrated.” It came down to a coin toss in overtime of Game 7 and the Capitals lost. Reirden took some heat for it.  

Washington’s coaching staff was an odd mix, but it doesn’t appear there will be any changes there. Reid Cashman, just 35 and an assistant at AHL Hershey the two years before, was in his first season as an NHL coach, too, and – if we’re being honest – had a rough gig dealing with veteran blueliners like John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. There’s not much an inexperienced coach can tell players like that. 

Scott Arniel gave Reirden an assistant with NHL head coaching experience. That proved helpful. Goalie coach Scott Murray’s role didn’t change much given that Mitch Korn had already scaled back his duties in previous years before leaving for New York with Trotz. Murray and Braden Holtby appeared to have a strong working relationship. Blaine Forsythe has been on staff for over a decade and runs the power play, which did slip some to 12thin the NHL.  

Reirden had to learn how to manage those coaches, blending a staff and finding the right way to delegate and trust. It’s a balance most rookie head coaches find tricky. A second year together should theoretically run more smoothly with roles defined and respected. If that doesn’t happen, it will spell trouble. 

At times it seemed like Reirden and MacLellan weren’t always on the same page. Jaskin was a fourth-liner picked up on waivers before the season, but was basically iced after December. Maybe that's not such a big deal. But Reirden didn’t quite seem to know what to do with defenseman Nick Jensen, either, after he was acquired from Detroit in a trade to bolster the blueline. 

Jensen never looked comfortable playing primarily on the left side once Michal Kempny was lost for the season with a torn hamstring. That’s a difficult position for any player on a new team in a pressure situation, but Jensen immediately signed a four-year contract extension after the trade so they’ll have to figure it out. Expect him to get heavy minutes as the replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pairing.   

There is probably much more behind the scenes that we don’t know – from interactions with individual players, who all have healthy egos of their own, to disagreements over strategy and tactics. NHL teams do a pretty good job of hiding those fissures, especially when they’re winning, but a coach has to figure out that balance and intuitively know when to scrap his own plan.  

In the end, much of this is nitpicking. The Capitals won plenty in Reirden’s first year, they made the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 years, they took the division again and they blew a series they should have won. That happened under Trotz, too. 

But the goal this year is clear: Keep the championship window open and make a deeper playoff run. No one knows when a Stanley Cup push will happen, but Washington better be in the mix. Do that and Reirden’s reputation will grow from coaching a roster that’s changed a lot since Trotz left last summer. Fall short and doubts will begin creeping in. If there’s any lesson that Reirden learned in his first season as a head coach it was that one. 

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