Tom Wilson, against all odds, will make his NHL All-Star Game debut on Saturday, Feb. 5, after he was called-up to replace Washington Capitals teammate Alex Ovechkin on the Metropolitan Division roster. The Canadian, who will join Evgeny Kuznetsov in Las Vegas, is on course for a career year. He’s registered 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists) in 43 appearances to open 2021-22, putting him on pace for 59 points come the end of the campaign.
Wilson is a key player for Washington, trusted by Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette to slot in anywhere in the lineup and make a positive impact. Before the NHL withdrew from the Winter Olympics, he was on Team Canada’s long-list and considered as an outside bet to win a seat on the plane to Beijing.
Broadly speaking, the reaction to reports of Wilson’s place on Canada’s Olympic watchlist was negative. This is a player, his critics argue, that frequently crosses the line, plays dangerously, and isn’t much of an offensive threat. His critics, I would argue, are wrong.
Tom Wilson’s Disciplinary Baggage
Wilson leads all players in penalty minutes (PIM) (1,181) since 2013, a tally that includes 18 misconducts and two match penalties. His suspension record is similarly extensive — he was banned four times between September 2017 and October 2018. His fifth, and latest, suspension came in March 2021 for boarding Brandon Carlo of the Boston Bruins.
“It was an awkward play and a player got injured and nobody likes to see that happen but Tom, he’s just a big, physical guy and I think he’s mindful,” Laviolette said after Wilson’s ban for boarding Carlo. “Obviously, the suspension hurts and you learn from things and what’s gonna be accepted and what’s not gonna be accepted.”
He added: “You can’t change his game. He’s got to be a power forward, he’s got to play the same teams, he’s got to play fast, he’s got to drive nets, he’s got to drive bodies and that’s what he does. So, I think you’re constantly working on, ‘What’s the line?’ and trying not to cross that line.”
However, Wilson’s disciplinary baggage extends way beyond incidents the NHL actually penalised him for. Last season, the New York Rangers accused him of committing a “horrifying act of violence” against Artemi Panarin at Maddison Square Garden. He was fined $5,000 for slamming his helmetless Russian counterpart headfirst into the ice, a decision that sparked a line brawl at puck drop the next time the teams met.
“After the play, I would have never thought all this would have blown up,” Wilson said after the incident. “It seemed fairly routine hockey scrum to me and I think that was the feeling by both players in the box. Obviously, it took on a new life after the game.”
While it isn’t a coincidence that controversy follows Wilson, his reputation for violent play precedes him. The Toronto native’s PIMs have fallen significantly since 2017-18 (peaking at 187), with 2021-22 on pace to be a career low.
As always with Wilson, the discourse surrounding his reputation is complicated. But, once you separate player from persona, his case to be selected as a COVID replacement All-Star is solid.
Tom Wilson’s Case for All-Star Recognition
It’s worth remembering that All-Star Weekend has never featured all of the NHL’s stars. Throughout the event’s history, there have been snubs and acts of truancy. Although Ovechkin is reportedly disappointed to be missing out on this year’s spectacle, he’s repeatedly skipped it in the past. Likewise, Sidney Crosby didn’t crack the Metropolitan Division roster this time out.
With that in mind, here’s why Wilson deserves his All-Star call-up. Firstly, he’s played a significant role for the Capitals this season, taking on additional leadership responsibilities amid the team’s injury struggles. He’s fifth on Washington’s roster for ice time share (31.9%), is second in hits to only Garnet Hathaway (128) and leads the team in PIMs drawn (32).
Wilson is playing at a 2.23 points/per 60 rate and is upholding a 55.5 percent share of on-ice expected goals. His creativity has also started to shine through — he ranks third on the Caps for created expected goals (12.2) and is on course to put up the most even-strength points of his career.
Aside from Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, Wilson has been Washington’s most important forward this year — making him the natural last-minute selection for the All-Star Game.
The NHL’s All-Star System is Broken
Of course, Wilson isn’t a true All-Star. Nor is he the best player the NHL could’ve parachuted into All-Star Weekend at short notice. Brad Marchand (21-28-49) isn’t headed to Vegas, neither is Mitch Marner (who has scored nine goals in eight games since returning to fitness) or Igor Shesterkin (who could win the Vezina Trophy behind a mediocre defence). However, he’s certainly more deserving of a spot in Vegas than Nick Suzuki, who has put up fewer points (27) than the controversial Capitals forward in more appearances (44).
The ire directed at Wilson’s call-up is misplaced. Yes, he’s crossed lines in the past. Yes, better players have been left off of the rosters this year. But he’s played his way into contention and has gotten a lucky break.
If the NHL wanted its All-Star Weekend to only feature its stars, it would drop the requirement to have every team represented at the event. Until then, players like Wilson are going to receive call-ups that call into question the nature of the event.
Tom Wilson’s Future with the Capitals
Sneaking into the All-Star Game at age 27 is a remarkable achievement for Wilson and reaffirms his status as one of Washington’s most valuable players. Moreover, he’s excited to experience the event for himself.
“I would have never really expected it when I came into the league but growing up as a kid those All-Star Games were really cool,” Wilson said. “A lot of those names, you watched them, the jerseys, the event, everything was awesome. You always kind of dreamed of being able to do that one day, so when I got asked today, it was a huge honor, a huge privilege and it’s exciting. At this point in my career it’s something that I’m really looking forward to and I’ll take in stride and I’m looking forward to the weekend.”
Although Wilson’s selection is unlikely to change the course of his career, it will help repair some of the reputational damage he picked up in his younger days. Saturday will mark another important moment for one of the NHL’s most divisive players — ultimately, what else is All-Star Weekend for?
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Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.