Capitals’ Wilson Avoids Suspension for Shenanigans Against Rangers

It’s less than 60 days since the last time I wrote about Tom Wilson and a suspension. Less than two months have passed since the last time Wilson was disciplined. This time his infraction occurred against the New York Rangers and there was a very public outcry calling for him to be harshly penalized.

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

Wilson’s discipline record is well known. He has previously been suspended five times in his NHL career. (from ‘Tom Wilson suspension history: Capitals forward suspended 5 times, fined twice,’ Trib Live, 03/04/2021) The list of players who have been injured after being hit by him is not a short list. After Monday night’s game against the Rangers, add Artemi Panarin to that list of injured players and a $5000 fine to Wilson’s discipline record. Tuesday the NHL Department of Player Safety (DoPS) announced that Wilson would not be suspended and he would receive the aforementioned fine. That left many people and Rangers very unhappy.

The Incident

The incident in question occurred on May 3 with 12:20 left in the second period of a contest between the Rangers and Wilson’s Washington Capitals. The Rangers were on the power play and looking to add to a 3-2 lead in their bid to stay in the playoff hunt. A defeat at the hands of the Capitals or a Boston Bruins victory against the New Jersey Devils would see the Rangers eliminated. The video of the incident will be linked further along in the segment, but I’m going to break down the tape moment by moment and describe everything as it happens.

Four seconds before the whistle blowing, Panarin fires a quick shot from the left circle. Another Rangers forward, Pavel Buchnevich, is battling around the crease with Capitals’ defender, Trevor van Riemsdyk. Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek stops the shot, but the rebound is loose in the crease. This draws a crowd as Rangers and Capitals alike crash the crease.

Buchnevich is in the best position to score, and Capitals’ forwards, Nic Dowd and Wilson, close in on him. As bodies pile in, Wilson and Dowd force Buchnevich down to the ice. As the whistle blows, Wilson punches Buchnevich. At a glance, the punch appears to be in the head, but upon further review, the punch is in the nameplate on the back of Buchnevich’s jersey. After the punch, though, Wilson continues to manhandle Buchnevich, who appears to be laying limp underneath Wilson. Ryan Strome grabs Wilson, attempting to pull him off Buchnevich, but he is almost immediately tackled by Dowd and all three players topple to the ice.

Brendan Dillon attempts to skate in, but Mika Zibanejad holds him up. Adam Fox is also attempting to hinder Dillon from getting involved. At this point, Panarin has made his way over to the pile and Buchnevich has started to get up from the ice. Wilson attempts to gain his feet, but as he does, he takes a swing at Strome, who is still tangled up with Dowd. Zibanejad and Fox have successfully gotten ahold of Dillon and are preventing him from getting physically involved.

Seeing Wilson take a swing at Strome, Panarin skates over and jumps on Wilson’s back to attempt to restrain him. Fox lets go of Dillon and tries to assist Strome with Dowd. Wilson stands up with Panarin on his back and turns to engage him and Buchnevich. Van Riemsdyk has made his way over and tries to tie up Panarin and Buchnevich, who currently have Wilson engaged 2-on-1. Dillon has gotten away from Zibanejad and is trying to get involved, but Zibanejad pursues him and tries to wrap him up again.

While the officials try to separate Dowd and Strome, Wilson, van Riemsdyk, Buchnevich, Panarin and Fox have all moved to the boards. Panarin has Wilson wrapped up while Fox and Buchnevich try to separate them. Buchnevich and Fox both end up grabbing van Riemsdyk while Dillon grabs Fox despite Zibanejad holding him. This leaves Wilson alone with Panarin. While they grapple, Panarin loses his helmet. A moment later, Wilson slams Panarin to the ice. In the process of doing this, Wilson appears to grab Panarin’s hair, using it to pull him down. Wilson hits Panarin in the face with a gloved hand and Panarin attempts to get up. Wilson pushes him back down to the ice and now the officials have moved in to try to corral Wilson.

As the officials tackle Wilson and Panarin, Buchnevich comes in to throw some punches at him. Wilson has a hold of Panarin, while two officials hold Wilson with Buchnevich over the top. Dowd jumps on Buchnevich and Strome piles on top of Dowd. 24 seconds have elapsed since the initial punch from Wilson to Buchnevich and currently, there is a pileup including Wilson, Panarin, Buchnevich, Dowd, Strome and two officials.

RELATED: Capitals’ Wilson Has No One to Blame but Himself

Several seconds tick away, with the pile moving closer to the boards. Vanecek skates over to investigate the melee but does not get involved. Dillon and Zibanejad have separated from one another and are trying to pull bodies out of the pile while van Riemsdyk and Fox are still tangled up. Dillon succeeds in pulling Strome from the pile, and Zibanejad is able to pull Dowd back, allowing Dowd and Buchnevich to get to their feet. This allows Panarin and Wilson to be helped to their feet by the officials. As this happens, Strome grabs ahold of Dillon and slams him to the boards. Buchnevich and Dowd have separated and gotten to their feet, with Dowd still held onto by Zibanejad. The officials drag Panarin and Wilson apart and the rest of the players are separated.

Wilson was given a four-minute double-minor penalty for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct penalty. Dillon, Buchnevich and Panarin were all assessed roughing penalties. Panarin left the game, did not return and is reported to be out for the remainder of the season. The Capitals rallied from the 3-2 deficit to win the game 6-3, with Wilson scoring the empty-net goal for the Capitals with 26 seconds left in the game.

Attempting to Explain the Ruling

Wilson was only fined $5000 for this incident. Where DoPS has come down on him in the past has been for hockey hits that involve or result in head contact. There’s not a lot of precedent for suspending players for violent actions that occur during “scrums.” There is a fair amount of precedent for the league not to hand out suspensions for “roughing” penalties.

For example: when Andreas Athanasiou attempted a knee-on-knee hit against Alex Kerfoot in the closing seconds of a December 2019 contest between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, Maple Leaf defender Justin Holl skated over to confront him. Athanasiou dropped his gloves and delivered a punch to Holl’s face before grabbing him and body slamming him. Holl never even got his gloves off to engage in a fight. No suspension was given to Athanasiou on the play.

While this incident is nowhere close to identical to the Wilson incident, it’s one of the closest comparable incidents I could find from recent seasons. Like Wilson, Athanasiou commits two egregious fouls on this play. He sticks out his leg to attempt to catch Kerfoot with a knee-on-knee hit, and then he dangerously throws Holl to the ice after sucker-punching him. There was discussion at the time as to whether or not a suspension should have been issued. It’s worth noting that Athanasiou does not have anywhere near the discipline record that Wilson has. I’m not trying to start a “strawman” discussion or engage in “whataboutism” with this example. It’s more about providing an example of a scenario where a suspension was not given for similar actions.

Conversely, there are other individual incidents where DoPS has gotten involved that could be invoked to justify a suspension for Wilson. In November of 2019, Milan Lucic delivered a violent sucker punch to Columbus Blue Jackets forward Kole Sherwood. Sherwood took a little extra poke at a puck that Flames’ goaltender, David Rittich, had covered. In response, Lucic rushed over to him and just decked him.

Lucic was suspended two games for this infraction. Wilson already has a seven-game suspension on the books for this season. If the DoPS used the Lucic sucker punch as a precedent to punish Wilson for the punches he delivered to Buchnevich, it wouldn’t be shocking for him to miss at least the first round of the playoffs. However, the frame-by-frame breakdown shows that Wilson’s punch to Buchnevich was not in the head or face. It’s hard to see DoPS punishing Wilson in line with the Lucic/Sherwood incident. Wilson is pushing Buchnevich’s head down to the ice before the punch, but the punch itself doesn’t really rise to the level of incidents that usually receive a suspension.

Tom Wilson Washington Capitals
Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

By and large, the league has been reluctant to invoke supplemental discipline when players engage in the type of conduct Wilson engaged in this time around. The punch to Buchnevich is punished with a roughing penalty. It’s textbook Rule 51.1.

51.1 Roughing – Roughing is a punching or slamming motion with or without the glove on the hand, normally directed at the head or face of an opponent, or if a player intentionally removes an opponent’s helmet during play pursuant to Rule 9.6

NHL Rule Book

The manhandling of Panarin in the subsequent scrum is punished by making the roughing penalty a double-minor and assessing a 10-minute misconduct. The optics of the incident are terrible, there’s no doubt about that, but the referees called the correct penalties for what occurred. Wilson instigated the scrum by punching Buchnevich, and there is no arguing that point at all, but that action alone is unlikely to draw a suspension. Sometimes, it doesn’t even draw a penalty.

The body slam to the ice during a scrum is typically penalized in-game and seldom are fines or suspensions issued. In this case, a fine was issued, but the public backlash in response to this incident continues. The pitchforks and torches are out in force and this incident may have more far-reaching consequences yet to be seen. For now, though, Wilson is public enemy number one for the Rangers, their fans and many other hockey fans around the league who believe he went too far and wasn’t punished heavily enough.

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