The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.
Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.
Today's question: Will Tom Wilson make more headlines this season for his offense or physical play?
Tarik: Tom Wilson is coming off his best season to date—and he’s about to get paid.
In 2017-18, the 24-year-old power forward established career highs in goals (14), assists (21), points (35), plus/minus (+10), penalty minutes (187) and ice time per game (15:59), while finding a home on Alex Ovechkin’s line. He also ranked fourth in both hits (250) and penalties drawn per 60 minutes (1.78).
In 21 playoff games, Wilson was one of the Caps’ most productive players, racking up five goals and 10 assists.
It was a pretty good year, indeed.
But it wasn’t a perfect one.
Wilson was also assessed a league-leading 41 minor penalties. And then there were the run-ins with the Department of Player Safety. In all, Wilson was suspended three times, including a three-game ban in the playoffs, for hits the league deemed illegal.
That last part, to me, is what makes Wilson such a difficult player to assess at this point in his development.
The arrow is pointing up in so many areas. His offensive game is coming, as evidenced by the sharp uptick in his point production last season. He fills an important and difficult role on the Caps: skating on the right side of a line with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. He's become a quality PKer. He puts opponents’ heads on a swivel, opening up space for his skilled linemates. He draws a ton of penalties, putting the Caps’ potent power play on the ice. He’s got leadership qualities, too.
But he’s also in George Parros’ crosshairs…and one questionable hit away from a potentially lengthy suspension.
Wilson MUST play with an edge to be effective. It’s his game. It’s in his DNA as a player. But it’s also critical that he develop a better feel for the fine line that separates a clean, hard, intimidating hit from one that’ll get flagged by the DPoS.
It’s his biggest challenge going forward.
I’m optimistic that he’ll make the necessary adjustments. Why? He’s a smart guy. He studies the game. He asks questions. And, if he's being honest with himself, I suspect he knows he’s got to dial it back, even if just a bit.
If he does, he’ll be making headlines for the right reasons next winter because Wilson hasn't hit his ceiling yet.
JJ: Let's consider first who we are talking about. This is not a Donald Brashear, Georges Laraque type of player who can fight and do little else. Wilson is a first-round draft pick and an important player to the Capitals. As Tarik mentions above, he set career highs in just about every offensive statistic last season. But if you want to really gauge his importance to the team, look at what happened when he was suddenly taken out of the lineup.
When Wilson was suspended three games in the playoffs for his hit to Zach Aston-Reese, Barry Trotz struggled to find someone to plug in on the top line. Devante Smith-Pelly was not a good fit while Jakub Vrana's offensive style left the line imbalanced and offense-heavy.
Wilson is not going to be a top point producer in the league, but he showed with 35 points last season that he is not simply an offensive anchor weighing the top line down. He's a good fit with Ovechkin and Kuznetov and we should expect to see him start the season there.
But can Wilson stay out of his own way when it comes to drawing the ire of the Department of Player Safety?
Prior to last season, you could defend Wilson because he had never been suspended and was not considered a repeat offender. Well, you can't use that argument anymore after he was suspended three times last season. The opposing players know who he is, the referees know who he is and everyone is watching.
Here's why I am not concerned. Wilson was suspended in the preseason and said he was not going to change his game. Another preseason incident cost him the first four games of the regular season and Wilson very quickly changed his tune. It looked like it was going to be a rocky season, but he was not suspended again for the entire regular season. It only became an issue again once the playoffs came around and emotions ran high.
Wilson studies the game and the DoPS very closely in order to keep his game just on the right said of legal. His biggest issue seems to be controlling himself when the playoffs roll around. But when it comes to the regular season, a top-line Wilson is poised for another big offensive season. He will drop the gloves a time or two, but I do not anticipate him getting into too much trouble with the league over the course of the season.
Other key Caps questions
- How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
- Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
- Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?
- Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?
- Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing a long-term contract?
- Which Braden Holtby will we see this season?