Tom Wilson is a polarizing figure.
Ask two people about his hit to Zach Aston-Reese in the playoffs last season and you will likely get two very different opinions on whether the hit was clean or not. Ask whether he is worth the six-year, $31 million contract he signed in the offseason and you will again likely get two very different answers.
But while Wilson may be decried as a thug by people outside of Washington and while his contract may be seen as way too large for a player of his caliber, ultimately, what everyone else thinks is irrelevant. To the Capitals, he is seen as a leader, a core part of the team and someone they wanted to commit to long-term.
“I love it here,” Wilson said Thursday after his first informal skate at MedStar Iceplex. “I expressed that I wanted to be here a long time and they reciprocated so it was kind of good to be on the same page. Obviously, I'm showing confidence in the growth of my game and the commitment that I have to the team.”
But a contract of that size does come with expectations. The Capitals are paying Wilson based on potential, hoping that he will be able to build on his career year last season in which he scored 14 goals, 21 assists and 35 points, all career highs.
Wilson knows for him to live up to his contract he needs to continue to grow offensively as well as stay out of the penalty box.
”It's my job to go out there and make it work and continue to grow as a player and help the team win,” he said.
Wilson found a home on the top line last season alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Wilson is adept at working in the dirty areas and winning board battles. He also adds balance to the line in the defensive zone.
Playing alongside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov obviously means a bump in offensive totals, but Wilson was not an anchor on that line being carried by his skilled linemates. He produced.
As much as Wilson contributes to that line physically, it will be his production that ultimately determines if he stays on the top line.
“On any given night now I'm going to be expected to produce,” he said. “I'm going to be expected to contribute offensively and if I'm playing with the guys that I finished with last season, it's our job to play both ends of the ice and do it really well. That's just part of the responsibility, that's part of the role that I've taken on at the end of last season.
“I've got to pick up where I left off and continue to produce, continue to compliment [Kuznetsov] and [Ovechkin] and continue to help the team win every night.”
But Wilson cannot help the team win if he’s stuck in the penalty box or worse, suspended and watching from the stands.
Wilson earned his first career suspension in the 2017 preseason. He was suspended again for the first four games of the regular season, but avoided any further supplemental discipline until the playoffs when he was sat for three games for his hit to Aston-Reese.
Like it or not, Wilson is now considered a repeat offender meaning he is one hit away from a significant suspension.
While everyone sees a replay of all the controversial hits, what many do not see is the work Wilson does off the ice to try and learn what exactly the Department of Player Safety is looking for in a hit that makes it illegal. Wilson and general manager Brian MacLellan met with the head of the DoPS, George Parros, last season to discuss just that.
Wilson said he had further “conversations” this offseason, but would not divulge who he had spoken with or the exact nature of those conversations.
“Hockey as a sport is in kind of a transition period here,” Wilson said. “Safety for the players is first and foremost and I understand that. And I'm a player too so I want it to be safe out there. But at the end of the day, it's a hard-hitting, physical game right now. That's part of my game, that's my nature. Everybody that knows me knows I'm not out there to hurt people are anything like that, I'm just trying to play the game hard and honest.
“It's on me to adapt, it's on me to learn where that line is and make sure that I'm on the ice, I'm not in the stands. The team doesn't want me in the stands, I don't want to be in the stands. I'd rather be out there helping the team win every night and contributing on the ice. It's on me to continue to round out that side of learning.”
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