The Capitals raised eyebrows over the summer by signing forward Tom Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract. That’s a hefty contract for a goon whose only contribution to the team are some big hits.
But general manager Brian MacLellan sees a lot more to Wilson’s game than just the physical play. In him, MacLellan sees a top-line line player who is a leader on and off the ice. That was evident during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup and that’s why the team made such a sizable commitment to him in the offseason.
Wilson has a certain reputation around the league because of his physical style of play and his past run-ins with the Department of Player Safety. But that only tells you part of the story. When you look at Wilson’s entire skillset and body of work, it soon becomes clear why the Capitals have so much faith in him.
Washington recognized Wilson’s potential early on, making him a first-round draft pick in the 2012 NHL draft.
“Our amateur scouts had a high opinion of him -- the skating, the physicality, the character – and I think they thought there was some upside there offensively that we could tap into,” MacLellan said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Washington. “He did score some at the junior level, but they thought he could get to a different level as he turned pro.”
But because of how he was utilized when he first entered the league, no one knew Wilson had that extra level to his game.
In need of a physical presence to plug into the lineup, head coach Adam Oates gave Wilson his NHL debut in the 2013 postseason. Rather than return him to his junior team the following season, the Caps elected to keep him in the NHL. Oates, however, only utilized him in a fourth-line enforcer role and that’s how Wilson’s reputation began to grow.
Wilson worked hard at developing other aspects of his game, but it was hard to show those with fourth line minutes. No one saw the work he was putting into his game, all they saw was highlights of fights or big hits.
“He came in originally as a fourth line energy player, might have started in the league a year or two early or not depending on your opinion,” MacLellan said.
Wilson’s real breakout season came in the latter half of the 2017-18 campaign when Barry Trotz elected to make him a top line player.
Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are two of the most talented offensive players in the NHL, but they are not nearly as good in their own zone. Rather than just load the top line with offensive skill and thus limit the situations in which it could be used, Trotz looked for someone who provide some defensive balance while also be able to keep up with the offensive skill of his line mates.
Wilson seemed like an odd choice initially, but only because most did not know how strong a skater he was. Most did not know his offensive upside. Most did not know the type of leader he was.
But the team did. It didn’t take long for the top line to take off with Wilson playing on the right wing.
“From the last 60 games and into the playoffs, I think his game hit a different level,” MacLellan said. “He played well on the first line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. [He] brings a lot to our team, brings a lot of energy to our team and I think at the point there in the playoffs that if we don’t have Tom Wilson, I don’t think we’re winning the Stanley Cup. He was that effective down in a couple of those series.”
If a general manager views a player as being that important to his team’s success, a big contract won’t be far behind.
It was a small sample size, but Wilson was only living up to the potential the Caps always knew he had and so a long-term deal seemed like a no-brainer.
“We felt confident and wanted him to be around here for as long as we could get him,” MacLellan said. “Both parties could have wanted a shorter term just to test the comfort level, test where he’s going to be skill wise and the impact he’s going to have on our team, but I think we were comfortable going term on him because we believe in the player, we believe in the person.”
“When the GM and the organization reach out and are willing to do a long-term thing, it’s pretty exciting and makes you feel good,” Wilson said. “That being said, it’s responsibility to continue to improve and help the team win because at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”
For more on Wilson the player and the person, be sure to check out our mini documentary “Tom Wilson: Marked Man” that will drop Wednesday exclusively on the MyTeams app!
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