Capitals’ Tom Wilson Should Quickly Reinvent Himself

The NHL is a tough league and every team needs an enforcer. The Washington Capitals have utilized a few enforcers over the years, but the current guy for the job is 21-year-old Tom Wilson. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Wilson certainly fits the bill as enforcer and was an ideal replacement for Matt Hendricks who moved on prior to the 2013-14 season. Wilson’s a great team player, but sometimes his actions get the Capitals in deep water. Is he currently a positive or a negative in the nation’s capital?

Visnovsky Islanders Tom Wilson
Lubomir Visnovsky saw the business end of one of Tom Wilson’s hits during the playoffs. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Wilson topped the Capitals’ regular season penalty minutes charts with 172 PIM, almost tripling the next player’s minutes on that list (Michael Latter with 68 PIM); he also topped the PIM charts in 2013-14. However, Wilson’s points tallies over both of his NHL seasons were mediocre at best.

During his rookie year (under former coach Adam Oates) Wilson scored three goals and chalked-up seven assists for 10 points from his 82 regular season games. He followed up those numbers this term with four goals and 13 assists for a points total of 17 from 67 games under new coach Barry Trotz. Wilson needs to improve on those numbers in his third season or eyebrows will be raised.

Wilson’s Hit on Visnovsky

Wilson has earned a reputation in Washington as a player who gets upset if an official has the audacity to end a fight in which the young Canadian is involved. Once the gloves are dropped, he likes them to stay dropped until his opponent is also dropped. Fighting is one thing, but taking boarding and charging penalties at inopportune times is another thing. During this postseason for example, Wilson made headlines for all the wrong reasons during the Capitals’ first round Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Islanders.

In Game 4 of the series, Wilson unceremoniously took out Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky leaving the latter concussed. At the time, Trotz had this to say about the resulting two-minute charging penalty assessed on Wilson:

“It was a hard, clean hit. He didn’t leave his feet, he stayed low, puck’s right there, all those things. Tom Wilson didn’t do anything other than run him over.”

However, that charging call (whether it was a legitimate penalty call or not) was one of many incidents involving Wilson that have gained the young forward a reputation as an ugly player. Not Sean Avery ugly (he’s a tough act to beat), but just plain ugly – probably due to immaturity.

This is how Wilson responded to a reporter’s question last month about his hard-hitting tactics:

“Whenever I make a body check, I’m trying to make sure I’m doing everything as clean as possible, staying on my feet and finishing hard and low through the guy’s body,” Wilson said after the Visnovsky hit. “You never want to see a guy go down like that, but it’s a hard enough sport and it’s a hard-hitting sport, so that’s going to happen.”

Wilson is a ‘Predator’

That’s what it comes down to. What is clean and what is not clean when it comes to Wilson’s brand of hockey. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks didn’t mince words in his description of the Capitals’ enforcer.

“The Capitals’ Tom Wilson is a predator who preys on defenseless opponents like the Islanders’ Lubomir Visnovsky, whom he finished off with an unnecessarily violent check,” stated Brooks in his April 25 article. “[Wilson] seems to play without regard or respect for the opposition, and who rarely confronts a foe straight-up and head-on. He is a fourth-line freight train who has made a career of coming at opponents when they are most vulnerable.”

“I’m not trying to hurt anyone,” countered Wilson the following day. “I just want to play the game hard and make their lives difficult. And yeah, it was a huge hit, but once in a while there’s a big collision in hockey. That’s the way it works. It’s not that I’m a predator trying to take out guys. I’m just trying to leave my mark and make sure that when I’m forechecking, they don’t have an easy out.”

Tom Wilson Capitals
Tom Wilson playing against the Flyers earlier in the season. (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

That all said, is Wilson a breath of fresh air or a major storm cloud for the Washington Capitals for the 2015-16 NHL season? Trotz recently stated that he expects more from Wilson next term – and that could be taken in a number of ways by Wilson and the Capitals’ fan base.

“He’s very mature for a young man, but there are expectations where he needs to grow,” said Trotz last week after the Caps’ elimination from the playoffs. “I think he’s got a great upside, but at the same time I don’t see him as a fourth line winger for the Washington Capitals. To me, he’s better than that.”

Trotz experimented with trying to prove that Wilson is ‘better than’ the fourth line during the regular season – but that experiment failed. Trotz played Wilson on the Caps’ first line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for most of November and December, but Wilson failed to create too many scoring chances alongside two of the best offensive players in the world. So, he dropped on through the lines back to the fourth line.

GM MacLellan’s take on Wilson

Washington Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan recently had this to say about Wilson during a press conference:

“We want to get Wilson more ice time next year. We need to bump him … we have to turn him into a top-six forward … we just need him making more plays, doing more with the puck, contributing offensively, and I think we can get that out of him.”

Since MacLellan also let slip during that same press conference that he’s looking to bring in a new top-six forward, it’s now time for Wilson to read between the lines of his GM’s rhetoric. Wilson should take a strong look at his style of hockey, work on his offensive skills rather than his boxing skills and – if he starts the 2015-16 season – he should create more scoring chances on whichever line he ends up on.

Otherwise, the crowd favorite may become a liability in Washington.