Photo: Maddie Mayer
For most of his career, Caps 2012 first-round pick Tom Wilson has languished on the team’s fourth line, more a sideshow than a contributing player. When former general manager George McPhee drafted Wilson, it was Wilson’s skating ability, skill, and bruising style that garnered attention.
“When we were in the middle of the playoffs I made a note after the games: remember these games when you’re at the draft,” McPhee said after drafting Wilson. “Remember how intense they are, how physical they are, how demanding they are, and make sure you get someone who wants to play in that kind of stuff.”
Wilson certainly loves to play physical. He’s been in the NHL’s top seven in penalty minutes over the last three seasons, including third this year with 96 PIMs. He has delivered crushing hits, including one that injured veteran Lubomir Visnovsky in the playoffs. Wilson has been a league leader in fights, recording around 29 bouts in the last three years.
Wilson has been a punishing fixture in the line-up for years, but we’ve seen few glimmers of Wilson’s offensive talent. Until now.
Over the last seven games, Wilson has six points — all assists. In Wilson’s previous 31 games this season, he had seven points. By that measure, it has been the best stretch in Wilson’s career.
Despite seemingly being targeted by officials for most of the season, Barry Trotz trusts Wilson with third line duties next to Jay Beagle (now Marcus Johansson) and Jason Chimera. That line has had varying levels of success.
During Saturday’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Blue Jackets, Wilson recorded two primary assists, including a subtle-yet-perfect saucer pass to spring Evgeny Kuznetsov on a semi-breakaway.
These individual plays might suggest that Wilson has finally turned the corner offensively. Wilson’s dashboard stats are the fire emoji right now, but his underlying play tells us more.
This season, Wilson has averaged 46.6 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5v5 play. Over the last ten games, that number has been 47.8, a slight upgrade. The Caps are not producing more offense with Wilson on the ice right now, but at least he’s improved since that bad, bad, stinky bad stretch in early December.
The Caps average 2.44 goals per 60 minutes while Wilson is on the ice this season, but lately that number has been 4.2. This suggests what Wilson is experiencing is the very definition of a shooting-percentage-driven hot streak. Or basically: luck.
The only difference I can find is that Wilson’s shot attempts have been more dangerous than usual in the last 10 games though not more dangerous than average.
Wilson was asked about his recent offensive success by Caps radio man John Walton at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. His response was interesting.
“[My offense] is coming along,” Wilson said.” You’re playing with different guys. You’re playing with a more offensive guy like Jojo. Even when I was playing with Beags, he’s good at finding the good areas. You just get them the puck and good things happen. If I get out there with Kuzy, a pretty offensive guy. If I can get the puck into their hands as quick as possible, they bury it. It’s been nice to get on the scoresheet, but it’s all about the four lines rolling and clicking hopefully.”
Wilson suggests his new linemates are the reason behind the offensive blossoming.
In my opinion, since his match penalty against Ottawa (later rescinded), Wilson’s focus has shifted — by necessity. Wilson’s M.O., agitating opponents into penalties so the Caps can score on the power play, doesn’t seem to be working so well lately. Here is Wilson’s penalty differential per 60 compared to two good penalty differential Caps forwards (Oshie, Johansson) and two less good ones (Kuznetsov, Beagle).
In the last month, Wilson’s ability to draw more penalties than he commits has vanished. For whatever reason, Wilson is now a liability rather than an asset when it comes to penalties. So he’s had to bring value in other ways.
Wilson is still creating havoc in a sense, but he’s also more careful, gliding into his hits rather than crashing. He’s also trying to forecheck and go to the net more. Paired with faster players like Jason Chimera, Wilson has been carrying the puck less. You may notice as soon as he receives the puck, Wilson will usually look for a pass or to dump the puck in. He’s more valuable to his teammates when he uses his size to create more room for them. The more he plays with good players and the more ice time he gets, the more Wilson’s offensive game will develop. But the Capitals are bursting at the seams with top-six talent right now; Wilson will have to work hard for every opportunity.
Whether or not his recent success is a blip or a sign of things to come, Wilson is already a success. According to TSN, only 60 percent of 16th overall picks play in more than 100 NHL games, and only 15 of them become top six forwards or better. Just by sticking in the NHL these last three years and playing in 187 games, Wilson has accomplished something profound.
But with his talent, I want moar.
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