Tom Wilson stays out of trouble with playoffs approaching

April 10, 2019

Four-year-old Jason Douglass proudly held up his sign at a recent Washington Capitals practice in Arlington. Its message: “Tom Wilson Is a Badass!”

An undisputed fan favorite in Washington, Wilson gets signs like that regularly, though maybe not as forthright and humorous. Jason’s grandmother, Stephanie Douglass of Virginia, said her family is full of Wilson fans, no matter his reputation around the hockey world.

“Everybody’s got a hard hitter on their team. Tom just happens to be ours and he’s got everybody’s back,” Douglass said.

Such is the topography of the debate over the NHL’s most polarizing player. Thirty other fan bases think he intends to injure opponents; certain hits from the last few years gave them evidence to make that argument. In Washington he’s beloved, and it’s hard to find a Capitals fan who ever wished he would change.

Yet Wilson has changed adapting his style and staying away from the Department of Player Safety’s scrutiny since he returned from a 16-game suspension to start 2018-19. He’s proven his value on the ice and scored goal after goal opposite all-time great Alex Ovechkin.

But the question has bubbled back up because the Stanley Cup Playoffs have returned. A year after injuring multiple opponents and picking up a three-game suspension that put his team in a bind during last year’s postseason, will Wilson continue down his new path and stay out of trouble?

From fighting to scoring

Wilson can’t erase his past four suspensions over a 105-game period, three of those in the calendar year 2018 alone. He broke Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw during last year’s playoff series with the Penguins and concussed Oskar Sundqvist of the Blues the following preseason. The latter earned him a whopping 20-game suspension (which an arbitrator reduced to 14 games after he’d already missed 16).

That suspension plus a December injury shortened Wilson’s season to 63 appearances, but he still easily set career highs with 22 goals and 40 points. Had he played a full season at that pace, he could have reached 29 goals and 52 points.

Two years ago, Wilson was a bottom-six enforcer known only for his hits and fights though his baby face and tendency to smile during and after fights didn’t exactly invoke the blood-splattered visage of Seann William Scott’s character from “Goon.” But nobody can call Wilson a goon now, because goons aren’t supposed to be reliable goal-scorers too.

Wilson never thought about what unlocking his full NHL potential could look like.

“I just tried to go out and do the things that were gonna help the team win,” Wilson said. “Whatever role I have and whatever responsibilities, just try to execute that. Hopefully the goals would come from that.”

Nicklas Backstrom, the center who’s played on the top line with Wilson and Ovechkin most of the season, said he’s been impressed watching Wilson grow.

“He’s been taking these steps to learn from last year and the year before that,” Backstrom said. “The good part is he does it all. He plays penalty kill, power play, 5-on-5, which is a huge thing. I think he wants to be that two-way player too.”

‘Doing everything he can’

While Wilson’s scoring ticked up, his fights became slightly less frequent just six this season, down from 13 the year prior. Everyone from his teammates to general manager Brian MacLellan feels Wilson has been more “selective” about using his physicality.

Fans like Douglass appreciate how Wilson has been “on better behavior” this year without giving up his physical style. Still, his reputation tends to precede him.

“They (officials) look at his history more than actually his offense that they feel he’s committed,” Douglass said. “It’s not necessarily in perspective with what’s going on in that game.”

In a November game against the Devils, not long after his suspension ended, Wilson checked Brett Seney in the left shoulder but was ejected for illegal contact with the head. The call was frustrating enough for cool-headed coach Todd Reirden to issue an angry rebuttal after the game.

“He’s not even attempting to make a hit, and we get a five-minute penalty that could’ve cost us the game,” Reirden said. “This guy is doing everything he can to try to play the right way, and this is how things are happening.”

But the NHL reviewed the play the next day and rescinded the penalty. That was the only real instance of scrutiny Wilson has received this season; Reirden said Monday the league office hasn’t so much as called them to discuss Wilson’s behavior all season.

“Since (the Sundqvist hit) occurred we’ve seen a little bit of a different player,” Reirden said. “I don’t think he’s put himself in a situation where someone can judge his actions. That’s a major credit to him.

“The opposition needs to know when he’s on the ice. And they’ll know,” he added, a touch of warning suddenly in his tone. “But to do it the right way is important.”

Fans in his corner

The fan blog NoVa Caps has a running joke from past Wilson suspensions. They would tweet a message along the lines of, “Good news, the Capitals have recalled forward Tim Winston.”

It’s accompanied by Wilson’s head shot with a mustache and round-rimmed glasses photoshopped on, as if a disguise could sneak him back into games where he’s sorely missed.

“It’s obviously great to have (the fans) in your corner,” Wilson said. “I think the fans in Washington are extremely passionate, very respectful and in my mind, the best in the league. They’ve always had my back no matter what. There’s nothing better than that.”

Outside Washington, it’s a different story. Wilson has a Twitter account, but he’ll quickly tell you he tries not to read much of what’s on there. If he did, he’d find fans from Pittsburgh to the West Coast who have tossed around hotheaded takes, saying Wilson should be kicked out of the league or even thrown in jail.

Even if you discount the hot-takers and radio shock jocks, fellow players aren’t happy with him either. Blues forward Zach Sanford told the Associated Press many players have “lost some respect for him” for his “cheap hits.”

But maybe Wilson’s NHL destiny is to be the heel with a cult following. He doesn’t listen to haters’ perceptions of him, but he knows he can tamp down the brutality of his hits.

Last summer, Wilson signed a six-year deal to stay in Washington, so young Capitals fans like the sign-waving Jason Douglass will grow up rooting for him, cheering when he scores and cheering for the crushing hits, too.