It happened at some point during the Road to the Winter Classic HBO 24/7 series in December of 2010 – probably right after we watched a team doctor stitch up Washington Capitals grinder extraordinaire Matt Hendricks after yet another in a seemingly endless string of fights. Head coach Bruce Boudreau, realizing that Hendricks brought more to the team than just his fearlessness and fists, told his pseudo tough guy that he didn’t have to fight every night. “Let someone else do that tonight,” Boudreau said.
Fast forward to 2015, just a few days after the Caps’ heart-wrenching Game 7 overtime loss to the New York Rangers in the playoffs. It’s exit interview time and you can almost envision Washington’s current tough guy Tom Wilson, who happens to possess the talent to become a pretty good all-around hockey player, sitting in Barry Trotz’ office getting the same fatherly advice from his new mentor.
In the NHL you know that you’ve arrived as an intimidating presence on the ice when:
- Opposing teams complain about your bone-crumbling hits before, during and after every postseason game.
- Veteran defensemen (yes that’s you, Keith Yandle) begin giving the puck away or wrapping it around the boards aimlessly every time you cross the blue line on the forecheck.
- Your top skill players begin randomly paying for your dinners on the road.
The first two of those three criteria certainly happened this year for Wilson, who was a difference-maker for the Caps in the playoffs against the Islanders and again early in the Rangers series before seeing his ice time cut later on in what was a rare questionable coaching decision by Trotz. (In Trotz’ defense he likely and justifiably was afraid that Wilson had become a marked man among NHL officials after numerous complaints from teams about his physical play in the postseason.)
Understanding the importance of not taking penalties during one of the most tightly contested series in NHL history, Trotz decided to hold Wilson back a bit, which allowed the Ranger defensemen more comfort in retrieving and moving the puck in their own zone. It’s hard to question the results that Trotz got in changing the Caps’ culture this year, but it was pretty clear that the Rangers were happy to see less of Wilson’s 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound frame speeding toward them.
In two short seasons, Wilson has emerged as Washington’s primary enforcer, seeing mostly fourth-line minutes and erratic ice time. In 149 career games he already has logged 323 penalty minutes while earning a reputation as one of the NHL’s hardest hitters and top fighters. He backs down from no one and makes sure that no opponent takes liberties with any of the Caps’ many skill players.
The question remains, however, if that is the full-time role you want for a 21-year-old player who skates well, seems to have decent hands and showed an ability to score goals during his junior career. Wilson recorded 23 goals and 35 assists in 48 games during his last season with Plymouth of the OHL – in addition to his nine goals and eight assists in 12 playoff contests – and has created space and performed adequately in a few short NHL stints alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom on Washington’s top line. But Wilson hasn’t seen much of the puck and has not been able to improve his offensive game while getting primarily part-time minutes on the fourth line.
Mac Sees a Top-Six Future for Wilson
So the Caps have a bit of a catch-22. You have a big, strong young player with first-round draft pick talent who also happens to be your top enforcer. Other teams need to be held accountable for their actions, but is this the guy you want skating an occasional shift and dropping the gloves every night? Clearly Washington GM Brian MacLellan sees more in Wilson than him serving as the team’s rent-a-goon and is aware that his average ice time of 7:56 and 10:56 the past two seasons isn’t going to allow him to develop his game fully at the NHL level.
At the same time you need guys like Wilson in the lineup to keep other teams honest and provide space on the ice for your best players to create offensively. Perhaps the recent addition of tough-guy Zach Sill and continued improvement of Michael Latta, who has emerged as the team’s No. 2 enforcer, will allow the Caps to effectively police their opponents while still allowing Wilson – and Latta for that matter – to develop.
Wilson has established his reputation as one of the league’s most effective tough guys, so his mere presence in the lineup will serve as a deterrent to dirty play, and with more ice time his penchant for creating chaos with a heavy and physical forecheck will be showcased even more.
“We need to, maybe not next year but maybe the year after, turn him into a top-six forward.,” MacLellan said shortly after the season. “We need some skill development there. I don’t like having him on the fourth line the whole year. I don’t think he touches the puck enough.”
Third-Line Minutes on the Horizon?
MacLellan’s comments make it appear likely that Wilson will at least open training camp penciled in on the team’s third line, perhaps with Marcus Johansson and a veteran such as Brooks Laich or Jason Chimera. It would be difficult for him to spend another season on the fourth line without getting a regular shift and then make the jump all the way into the top six in two years. For Wilson to stick on the third line this season it’s going to take discipline and a realization on his part that he doesn’t have to drop the gloves on a nightly basis.
“I think he needs to make more plays,” MacLellan said. “He already is a big part of our identity. We just need to maximize him has a player, and I think he has the potential to do that. During the year I’ve seen him play first line where he was effective. He gets in on the forecheck, he’s physical, he creates loose pucks. We just need him making more plays – doing more with the puck and contributing offensively – and I think we can get that out of him.”
For the Caps to fully commit to Wilson as a top-nine forward this year they will need to be patient. If he’s not producing and the team struggles out of the gate it would be tempting to move him back into a more familiar role, which in the long term might not be good for him or the organization. It is an exciting proposition, though, to see what a guy with his size and skating ability can do if playing with more skilled players on a regular basis and perhaps setting up in front of the net on one of the team’s power-play units with that role being vacated by departing forwards Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer.
“Barry is big on details and managing the game and learning to play the right way,” MacLellan said. “Tom does make a few mistakes – coaching mistakes I would call them. Managing the puck is the language that Barry uses, and I think it’s good that Barry holds them accountable for that. In the end they all learn.”
Wilson, who has seven goals and 20 assists in 149 career games, will learn quickly enough, and hopefully part of that learning process will be the realization that he doesn’t have to drop the gloves every night.