the Frustration of Tom Wilson

A reputation doesn’t take much to earn, only a couple of rumors really. But, it can take a lifetime to unearn.

The Washington Caps as a franchise and some of the players, past and present, have reputations. Some deservedly earned, such as the Cardiac Caps nickname for their playoff losses. Some not so much, like the enigmatic Ovechkin for being a selfish superstar and a coach killer. Then there are the ones where one might not be sure what to make of the circumstances.

Enter Toronto, Ontario native and Caps 2012 First Round pick Tom Wilson

When he was drafted as a teenager he projected top-nine talent easy with top-six possibility as a power forward. A freight train sized winger with good physical presence, decent speed (particularly for his size), an alright shot add raw but applicable hockey smarts – as a summary of the different scouting he received. During his time with the Plymouth Whalers he posted 27 points (9 goals, 18 assists), but more notably added adding 13 points (7 goals, 6 assists) in 13 post-season tilts. At the NHL combine that year he smoked all of the power categories.

The Caps hadn’t had a projected power forward talent in their system like this in ages. The closest guy they were currently icing was playoff hero Joel Ward and before that you’d have to turn back to Ovechkin’s early days skating opposite Mike Knuble for anything similar. He measured well against league aggitators like Milan Lucic while having the potential of power forward physicality like the vein of Johan Franzén.

With great power however comes great responsibility.

For Tom Wilson it’s possible his youthful exuberance may have gotten the best of that adage and helped create the reputation he has now

The other night against the Ottawa Senators Tom Wilson was tagged with a highly controversial Match Penalty for a check on Curtis Lazar. I say it’s controversial for a number of reasons, most glaring of which is the hit itself likely wasn’t penalty worth to begin with, forget about rising to the notion of being a Match Penalty in violation of Rule 48 that includes a game ejection and automatic suspension.

The league kept the outcome of their investigation under wraps until the end of the day today final rescinding the penalty but the damage is done. The truth of the matter is it was a clean, albeit unfortunately timed hit … to a guy with a history of concussions … who is substantially smaller than Tom … who was out of position and not protecting himself for a hockey play … who wasn’t necessarily wearing his gear correctly (chin strap too lose) … and, bore the brunt of a Scott Stevens-esque check in the most violent of ways.

Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing, again, it’s another mark on the reputation of Wilson.

We’ve seen this movie before.

Wilson’s 6’4″ 210 lbs freight train coasting into Lubomir Visnovsky during last seasons playoffs laying him out as well as crushing Brayden Schenn of Philadelphia last year. Both players missed time after taking a check from Wilson. Brian Campbell, Alexander Steen, Christian Ehrhoff and others escaped without such injury but the incredible impact itself of checks certainly have not gone unnoticed around the league.

In the current season alone, the twenty-one year old is tied for the team league with Alexander Ovechkin at 86 hits, good for 22nd in the league. It’s notable though, he’s done it with significantly less ice time than the majority of players in front of him and he’s averaging 2.86 hits per game with a solid hits/60 in the leagues extreme upper echelons.

Last season, teammates Ovi and Orpik held their usual top-10 spots on the league leaderboard, but next up was Wilson coming in at #30 with 205 hits. 3-plus hits per game played and an solid hits/60 with improved ice time over his rookie outing again puts him in the upper echelons.

In his rookie season, he put up top 40 numbers with 197 hits but did so on what you would expect of rookie numbers. Two and a half per game but at only 8 minutes average per in a myriad of different roles gives him a solid top tier hits/60 no matter how you chose to value the idea of hits or how dubiously tabulated, or how questionably relevant the stat might be considered.

Wilson also was voted as the ‘Best Body Checker’ in the OHL’s 2012 Western Conference Coaches Poll and was a runner up for the ‘Hardest Worker’ distinction. He pulled top numbers, where they were actually cataloged, for hits/checks as well for his short time in the OHL.

When Wilson is given the opportunity he is more than apt to be physical, and it’s not just by landing a body reducing check either.

So far this season he is deferring to roommate and fellow bottom six grinder Michael Latta more and only accumulated 2 fighting majors so far, good for a tie at 30th in the league with a top 30 pugilist leading 185 minutes between fights but a much more respectable FM/60 for his 30 games so far.

Wilson pulled down last season 12 fighting majors last season, leading the team and good for sixth in the league and with only 67 games played that’s a fight every 5 and a half games averaging about 11 minutes a game on the ice for a fairly bad FM/60. What’s notable is he averaged only 61 minutes between fights, which is 28th shortest in the league and third shortest for anyone in the top ten for fighting.

In his rookie season of ’13-14 he generated 14 fighting majors leading the team and good for fifth in the league. That’s about a fight every 6 games for his 82 outings, but with a brutal FM/60 ratio due to his low ice time and only 46 minutes between fights, among the worst in the top 30.

His pre-NHL numbers bear out the same type of trend, he pulled 18 fights in his short minors career, with a per game and per/60 albeit not as high ranking but that’s the difference between lower leagues and the NHL for “how” the game is played.

And, it’s not just fighting or checking infractions that gain the league, including the refs, the opposing teams, including the players or the coaches, or the spectators, including the fans and writers that have garnered attention.

Deserved, or not, overall, Wilson’s penalty received are pretty notable as well.

So far this year, Wilson has a team leading and third in the league 75 minutes received and at 2.5 per game also leads the team and is a secure top ten in the league per game numbers with a maybe a tolerable PIM/60 ratio at an ice time of 13 minutes per game. He’s pulled less on fighting minutes and thus also instigator penalty minutes, but still draws heavily on roughing even when it hasn’t been paired with a fight and is also pulling boarding and related physical excess penalties that are greatly outweigh something like hooking or tripping that happen from bad positional play or puck over the glass and related delay of game type penalties.

Last season, he wrapped up the year leading the team and forth in the league with 172 minutes at a rate of 2.57 per game good for third in the league (min of 10 games played) per game numbers and a tough PIM/60 ratio for an average 11 minutes of ice time per game. Granted, a lot of it was pulled on fighting (again in theory 34.2 on a 10 minute major assumption) but his other infractions tended to lean to roughing and instigating or taking a boarding penalty that would draw retalitation from the other team resulting in those premier physical penalties leading into fighting.

In his first season, a full affair of 82 games, he pulled down 151/PIM, good for 1.8 per game or the lowest ratio in the top ten of minutes accumulated, but his PIM/60 was still pretty high considering his 10 minutes of ice time. Primarily his penalties came from his overt physical play.

And, yet in his entire time in the NHL thus far he has faced no supplementary discipline, fines or other league action for his physicality. Ney, his one diving penalty is his only disciplinary action.

Again Wilson’s minor league numbers seems to appear to follow the same trend. He was penalized in game for being a physical presence sometimes playing on the edge but never disciplined for it outside of the game itself.

If you are following what I’m getting at, it isn’t surprising Wilson is “on notice” as writer Elliot Friedman seemed to imply.

The biggest difference between Friedman’s list of league targets and Wilson is that everyone Friedman lists has at least one, if not more, actual league disciplinary actions against them for real infractions of the rule book as determined not only by the on-ice officials, but by the league’s re-evaluation and the court of public opinion. The likes of Steve Downie, John Scott, Zac Rinaldo, Jordin Tootoo, et al who are multiple offenders along with “interviewer” Chris Pronger who he himself is a multiple offender, are named in the article alongside Wilson who has never had a negative outcome. The situation seems sketchy, but, despite the leagues attempt at transparency (which I personally thought during the era was really well tried) this is about as opaque of an approach to a developing player’s career for either himself or the league’s fans as could be.

The truth of the matter is Wilson’s crime isn’t that of being a goon, yet, it is underperforming as a top 20 draft pick. That underperformance is helping put the spotlight on his current perdiciment. Period. End of story.

IF, Wilson were the “heir apparent” of Milan Lucic and Johan Franzén or Wade Simmonds or Scott Hartnell or so on he would put himself in a position to actually generate scoring chances to make himself an actual power forward and not just a big, young agitator.

For the Caps the barrier is so low he should be able to limbo over it and yet he struggled.

7g/ 20a/ 27p on 149 regular season appearances and 0/1/1 on 16 post-season a career 49.5CF over three seasons is not going to cut it.

I will concede: He came to the NHL at 18, with only one season of OHL experience to a franchise in transition from the post-Boudreau era. His draft selection by General Manager George McFee was of the ‘best player available’ type even if you might debate his draft position overall in 2012.

While the Hunter regime was a singularly, pun intended, defensive move by GMGM to save the season it was the hiring of Oates that was suppose to define the franchise future.

It’s unclear what Oates’ strategy was in player development but as a first year coach he appeared to mentor Wilson’s physicality first and foremost.

In the meantime, from Wilson’s draft class, fellow Caps pick (and he who should not be mentioned), Philip Forsberg-RW/C/LW was World U-18 Best Forward 2012, World Junior All-Star Team 2013, 2014, World Junior MVP, 2014, with WJC Silver 2013, 2014 & and WJC Gold in 2012 and NHL All-Rookie & All-Star 2015, with as 27/42/69 regular season slash and 4/2/6 in 7 career playoffs.

Tomáš Hertl-C, #17 pick coming after Wilson, age 22, has a 28/28/56 regular season slash in 119 games with 2/3/5 in 7 post-season appearances.
Teuvo Teräväinen-C/LW, #18 pick,, age 21, 4/5/9 on regular season games & 4/6/10 in 17 post-season appearances including a Stanley Cup win.
Stefan Matteau-C/LW, #29 pick, age 21, 2/2/4 in 24 regular season games.
Tanner Pearson-LW, #30 pick, age 23, 15/8/23 in regular season games and 4/8/12 in 25 post-season appearances including a Stanley Cup win.

And, of non-forwards to note success of:
Olli Määttä-D, @22 pick age 21, 10/28/38 in 98 regular season games and 0/4/4 in in 17 post season appearances.
Damon Severson-D, #60 pick, age 21, 5/12/17 in 51 regular season games.

Do you know what ALL these guys so far have in common? They all have less games, and fewer minute than Wilson in the NHL and yet are contributing much more points wise then him.

While Wilson spent ample time on the top line with dynamic duo Ovechkin-Backstrom who are career point(-plus)-per-game producers and the perception was pucks died with Wilson. Not only could he not generate scoring chances himself but it could be argued he was also hindering the chances for his linemates. That’s in spite of what generally appear to be pretty decent possession numbers overall. While possession is fine, finishing is more important, especially when you’re supposed to be a power forward. If you can’t put the dirty goals up you have no business with either that as your position title or a spot in the top-six.

What’s more frustrating, Wilson was sharing time on the top line with several other under-25 guys and of all of them it’s safe to say he faired the worst. It isn’t easy to cut up career numbers by which line they were accrued on, but as a comparison, here’s the other kids that skated up top:

André Burakovsky-C/RW/LW, 20 year old, 2013 draft 23rd overall pick 9/13/22 in regular season games and 2/1/3 in 11 post season appearances.
Evgeny Kuznetsov-C/RW, 23 year old, 20101 draft, 26th overall pick, 14/32/46 in 97 regular season games and 5/2/7 in 14 post season appearances.
Marcus Johansson-C/RW, 25 years old, 2010 draft 24th overall pick, 61/125/186 in 344 regular season games and 5/10/15 in 44 post season appearances.

Sure, he is 21 and most forwards are only in the beginning stages of their career arch in their early 20s, while many power-forwards don’t actually hit their career peak until their late 20’s when they are able to use both their physical force and their hockey smarts to grind out their best seasons.

And, at 21 he is on essentially his second general manager and third coach in the league. He has had to adapt to different expectations and playing styles for a team in transition.

Yet, with the time and assignments Tom Wilson has been given he’s not performed anywhere near the expectations to his draft position compared to the top end of his peers. So, the focus falls on his physicality and for all his other abilities he seems to be overvalued despite a few aspiring moments of putting up better than 50% corsi-for, and producing a tick better than average corsi-against numbers along with recent showing of good penalty kill success.

So, what does this mean for Tom Wilson, Washington Capital?

If he’s studious and fortunate, he’ll set himself up for success as a punishing third line winger alongside of Beagle-Chimaira for the remainder of the season, opening up the ice for fellow grinders and improving his G/A/P relative to his assignments while continuing his propensity for above average defense on a line that needs that intimidation. He’ll increase his time on the penalty kill and provide not only much needed muscle in his own end but also create the occasional opportunity short handed by maximizing the offensive talent he has shown flashes of possessing.

If he’s able to produce a rel-CF/CA ratio that stands up with him becoming the go-to point producer on his line it would go a long way to defending his deservedness to see top-six minutes, especially on a team that enjoys playing quite a bit of mis-matching. Trotz has already shown a propensity to switch things up in interesting and unique ways, slotting lower line guys into top positions to give opponents interesting looks. Under that guise and with an improved skill set, Wilson could slot in opposite Ovi again at some point doing the dirty work in front of the net or find himself in the slot on PP2 and so on.

Again, he’s shown flashes of skill as of late and he’s generally toned down the fisticuffs, so the opportunity is still his for the taking. Let’s hope he can find within himself something more aligned to Lucic or even Kunbes and less to his fourth line grinding roommate Latta.


About thedoormouse

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