WASHINGTON —Tom Wilson had his 20-game suspension reduced just in time by a neutral arbitrator Tuesday and the Capitals will welcome back their rugged winger tonight against the Minnesota Wild.
Better late than never after Wilson missed the first 16 games of the season. The arbitrator, Shyam Das, actually knocked the suspension down to 14 games from the original 20, but there’s no time machine to put Wilson back in the lineup for home losses to Columbus and Arizona.
There’s also no time machine for Wilson to go back and avoid illegally checking St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the head. That play, during a Sept. 27 preseason game, was the final straw for the NHL, which had suspended Wilson three times in the previous 13 months.
It was a bad hit at a pointless time in a meaningless exhibition game and gets right to the heart of the matter: Can Tom Wilson change how he plays? And if he does, is he worth what the Capitals invested in him this summer?
“The hitting aspect of the game is definitely changing a little bit, and I’ve got to be smart out there, and I’ve got to play within the rules,” Wilson said on Oct. 14. “And at the end of the day, no one wants to be in the situation that I’m in right now. I’ve got to change something because obviously it’s not good to be out and not helping your team.”
Washington signed Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract in July. He is a unique player in the NHL, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound wrecking ball who can put the fear of God into opposing players, but isn’t just another goon. He can play. He had 14 goals and 21 assists last year, doubling his previous best, while playing on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Capitals believe Wilson has more in him.
"No, I don't think he has to change. I've been in this situation, too,” Ovechkin said. “To be honest with you, I don't want to talk about his game because he knows what he has to do. I think it's just a situation where you let it go…He just have to play the same way he played and don't listen to no one because it's your choice how you playing."
There is also an elephant in the room. Ovechkin is only under contract two more years after this one. Nicklas Backstrom is a free agent after next season. Both players will be well into their 30s when free agency hits. The Capitals would love them to retire here, but no one can say what will happen. Wilson is a potential captain, a gregarious, vocal presence who is under contract through 2024. He is young enough to lead the post-Ovechkin team the organization builds.
But all of that investment goes to waste if Wilson can’t stay on the ice and that is the immediate problem. Because the next bad decision, the next time Wilson crosses the line the punishment only goes higher. Remember when he broke Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw in the second round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last May? If that happens again Wilson will be staring at a 25-to-30 game suspension. That’s almost one-third of an entire season.
Wilson’s teammates have been supportive. Ovechkin’s comments indicate that. T.J. Oshie has been outspoken on Wilson’s play since the playoffs last year when he had multiple close calls, including the Aston-Reese hit that earned him a three-game suspension during the Pittsburgh series. Wilson hit Columbus forward Alex Wennberg in the first round, but escaped supplemental discipline.
“When I'm going to hit someone, I'm going to hit him as hard as I can. But that doesn't mean I want to hurt him,” Oshie told NBC Sports Washington on Oct. 2. “It means I want to change the way the game's going. I want to separate him from the puck. I want him to fall down so for a brief moment, we have five guys going and they've got four. Tom does it the same way. He gets penalized, I think, for his size and strength.”
There is a fine line, however, between being supportive and enabling a player and Washington’s players, coaches and executives at least walk that line with their public comments. The organization is still upset at the suspension for the Aston-Reese hit. Wilson himself, while acknowledging all the work he did last year to meet with NHL officials and understand what he can and can’t do, said after that hit that ex-players and friends around the league were texting him not to change a thing.
Those mixed messages could prove troublesome because the NHL itself is unambiguous. Wilson is out of chances and no matter how the Caps feel about that interpretation, they need him to heed the warnings.
“There are certain ways they are calling things,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “You need to be aware of how they’re making their calls on suspensions. Tom is a big, strong guy who skates really well. There is a lot of force behind his contact. He needs to be aware of how they’re determining what’s legal and what’s illegal from the league’s standpoint.”
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