Capitals’ Wilson Has No One to Blame but Himself

On March 6, Tom Wilson was issued a seven-game suspension for his hit on Boston Bruins’ defender Brandon Carlo. Whenever one of these types of hits happens, a clear line in the sand is drawn in the minds of hockey folks. There are two main schools of thought regarding it. One school says that it’s a legal hit and Wilson should not have been penalized at all and the other sees it as a clear rule violation that rightfully resulted in a suspension. This is his fifth major suspension in his eight-year career. With this latest suspension, he becomes a cautionary tale of how the things a player does now, affect their tomorrow. Because of his history, borderline hits and plays that open the door for suspension will continue to go against him.

More Than Just a “Goon”

Wilson has become a major contributor in the Capitals lineup beyond just the physicality he brings to the game. Since his last suspension, for his hit on Oscar Sundqvist, Wilson has 50 goals and 51 assists in 152 games played. This season alone, he’s top five in points on the team.

Statistics2013-14 thru 2017-182018-19 thru 2020-21 (as of March 6)
Games Played391152
Goals3550
Assists6951
Points per Game0.270.66
Hits1144524
Hits per Game2.933.45
Average Ice Time12:0918:05
Data provided by Hockey-Reference.com

In addition to increased production, Wilson has seen his ice-time usage grow. He’s become a contributor on the power play with 10 of his last 50 goals coming with the man-advantage. His size, tenacity and awareness also make him a key part of the Capitals’ penalty kill. In the last three seasons, he has molded himself into the kind of complete power-forward that every NHL team covets. He has become the gold standard that all other NHL power-forwards are measured against. Because of this. losing him for seven games in a shortened season is a big blow to the Capitals.

Wilson’s Suspension History

Prior to the Carlo incident, the Department of Player Safety has suspended Wilson on four previous occasions. An article done by Brandon Schlager of the SportingNews chronicles his discipline record along with some of his hits that the author (and others) found controversial. In this section, I’m only going to talk about Wilson’s previous suspensions. I’ve included the official Department of Player Safety videos for each incident.

Tom Wilson Washington Capitals
Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Wilson’s first two suspensions both came in the 2017-18 preseason. He was given a two-game suspension, served during the preseason, for a hit on St. Louis Blues’ Robert Thomas. Department of Player Safety invoked interference when they handed down the ruling, but they could have probably also gone with charging. He leaves his skates during contact and the hit is high.

After serving his suspension Wilson was back in action against the Blues in another preseason game. With 2:24 remaining in the 2nd period, he crushed Samuel Blais against the boards leading to a five-minute major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct penalty. The penalty is almost textbook boarding and is very similar to a hit against John Moore of the New Jersey Devils in 2016 that Wilson was not penalized for. This time around, it cost him four games.

Through the regular season, Wilson was able to skate clean and avoid any further discipline. However, in the playoffs, he got suspended again. This time he hit Pittsburgh Penguins’ forward Zach Aston-Reese. The NHL is notorious for calling the rulebook with less scrutiny during the playoffs, but this hit was such that there was no way to not discipline him for it. A slow-motion review of the video makes it appear that Aston-Reese’s shoulder is the principal point of contact, but Wilson’s shoulder clearly makes contact with his jaw.

There are actually people on hockey twitter who would argue with you that the jaw is not the head. The Department of Player Safety determined this to be an illegal check to the head under Rule 48.1 and suspended Wilson for three games. He and the Capitals were lucky this suspension did not end up being more costly for them. Up to that point, he had contributed seven points in nine playoff games. He finished the playoffs with 15 points in 21 games, helping the team secure its first-ever Stanley Cup Championship.

In the following preseason, Wilson had the book thrown at him. In the previous 13 months, he had been suspended three times for a total of nine games. So, when he gave Blues’ forward Oskar Sundqvist a hit reminiscent of the one that hastened the premature end of Marc Savard’s career, the league decided to make an example out of him. Sundvqist crossed to the center of the ice and fired a long shot on net. After shooting the puck he stayed in a low shooting stance for a moment, “admiring” the shot. Wilson hit him in the head going full tilt and the aftermath speaks for itself.

The force is enough to make Sundqvist’s head snap around violently and his body ragdolled as if he had been struck by a car. Considering the history of the previous season, the league suspended Wilson for 20 games. It’s pretty clear that the NHL intended this as an “intervention” type moment for Wilson. At the time of his hit on Sundqvist, Wilson was only 24 years old. If he were to stay healthy and out of trouble he could have upwards of 10 years or more ahead of him as an NHL player. The harshness of the penalty was not unwarranted, but it also seemed as though the league was trying to send a message that they did not want to see another Raffi Torres type of situation. It’s worth noting that Torres’ infamous 41 game ban occurred on his fifth suspension.

The Carlo Incident in Retrospect

I expected a suspension to be issued and I thought it could be as many as 10 games. However, I felt a more likely scenario would be five games. A seven-game suspension is right in the middle. If the 56 game season is taken into account in determining suspension length, then a seven-game ban in a 56-game season is approximately equivalent to a 10-game ban in an 82-game season. There’s no question Wilson’s discipline history played a part in determining the length.

It’s hard to ignore Wilson’s history when looking at this hit. Throughout his career, he has pushed the envelope of what constitutes a legal hit. By my count, his hits have accounted for at least 10 player injuries including concussions. The hit on Carlo was hard enough for him to require hospitalization. Those who extol the toughness and physicality of the sport of hockey should take that fact into account. Carlo is not a small guy. He’s a 6-foot-5, 212-pound defender who doesn’t shy away from physical contact. For a player to go to the hospital usually means a high degree of seriousness for the injury.

Carlo was in a vulnerable position with the puck in his skates when Wilson comes in for his hit. If you pause the Department of Player Safety video at the 0:54 mark you can clearly see Wilson’s hands making contact with Carlo’s jaw. Right behind those hands is his body. There’s a substantial amount of impact force occurring at that moment with Carlo’s jaw and head. The video clearly discusses Rule 41.1: Boarding, and explains why this hit qualifies. I would speculate that if Carlo were not injured on the play, there might not be a suspension here. Because the play results in a significant injury, the league almost has to review it.

It’s not like Wilson has been a perfect angel this season prior to the Carlo incident either. If the league had wanted to, they probably could have come down on him for his very late, flagrant interference hit on Penguins’ forward Mark Jankowski on Feb. 25. The resulting injury caused Jankowski to miss three games.

It’s an illegal hit, against an unsuspecting player that results in an injury. What kept it from being reviewed is likely the lack of a head injury and the lack of head contact. Jankowski is hit and sent flying as opposed to Carlo just collapsing in a heap, clutching his head. As long as there is no head contact, the league seems content to allow Wilson to play on the edge. He has tailored his game in such a way that he has been able to play physically while staying discipline-free since the Oct. 2018 incident with Sundqvist.

It feels like the seven-game suspension is a shot across Wilson’s bow. The league wants to remind him, his teammates and coaches of where he was just a few years ago. However, they also want him to continue to play the game the way he plays it because it’s marketable. As long as he’s not causing concussions they’ll let it go. However, if he causes head injuries, they’re going to come down on him hard. Carlo received a head injury, hence there is a suspension. An illegal hit (boarding), resulting in a head injury, is going to result in a suspension every time. That’s how the Department of Player Safety has been handling things recently, even with players who have no history of supplemental discipline. I don’t disagree with it and I challenge hockey fans to take a stance that is in favor of head injuries.

Wilson’s saving grace is the lapse of time since the Sundqvist incident. Because he’s been discipline-free since Oct. 2018, he is no longer considered a “repeat offender” as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement. If he were considered a “repeat offender,” the league would have been obligated to have this suspension be longer than the 2018 20-game suspension.

A Player is considered a repeat offender for 18 months following his most recent incident that resulted in a suspension. His status as a repeat offender in this category is used to determine the amount of salary forfeited should he receive another suspension.

It is important to note that even if a Player is not defined as a repeat offender, his past history may come into consideration when determining future Supplemental Discipline.

Department of Player Safety FAQs – NHL.com

The league does take time to make it clear though, that even though he’s not defined as a repeat offender his history can still be counted against him. That is an aspect of his career that Wilson will never be able to escape. Those who say he was suspended because of who he is, are partially correct. A first-time offender in this type of scenario would get between one and three games. Wilson gets seven because of his history. Ultimately it’s Wilson himself who is responsible for that history. Very few players will ever receive their fifth suspension. He finds himself currently serving his fifth and he has no one to blame, but himself.


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