I see Tom Wilson‘s seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension as a statement by the Washington Capitals on where the team is headed. They have long seen Wilson as the future of the franchise, a bridge player who will lead the post-Ovechkin era, and now they’re committed to it.
That’s how it’s supposed to go at least. The contract comes at a pivotal time in Wilson’s career, and that makes it heavy with risk.
One year ago, Wilson’s contract wouldn’t have raised eyebrows. In 2021-22, he scored 52 points in 78 games and added 13.8 goals above replacement, the best number on the Caps and placing him just outside the league’s top decile. But in the first period of the first game of Washington’s first-round series against the Florida Panthers, Wilson tore his ACL. He required surgery and didn’t return for eight months.
Looking only at boxcar statistics, Wilson’s comeback season looked great. He scored 13 goals in 33 games, with an all-situation individual goal rate second on the Caps only to Alex Ovechkin. Here’s how those 13 goals came, broken down by game state:
|5||five on five|
|2||four on four|
|1||three on three|
|1||against empty net|
Wilson’s individual goal rate during five-on-five only was in line with his recent seasons, an encouraging fact considering his injuries, but a more modest showing than the gaudy impression that 13 in 33 might give. Among Caps forwards, Wilson ranked just above Conor Sheary and just behind Anthony Mantha, whose low production was punished. Wilson’s excellence came mostly on special teams and in special situations. That shouldn’t discount his performance, but it helps us better understand what drove it.
Outside his individual goal scoring, Wilson’s five-on-five shifts were a disaster for the team. The Caps got outscored 28 to 20 while he was on the ice. Opponents got 16.2 high-danger chances per hour, ranking Wilson 407th out of 413 NHL forwards who played at least 400 minutes. The actual goal rate by opponents was 3.9, higher than any other Caps player, including Nicklas Backstrom, though Washington goalies saving 87.6 percent surely drove a good chunk of that. Still, all Wilson’s individual heroics couldn’t keep him out of the red.
Evolving Hockey’s goals above replacement statistic breaks down a player’s contributions into compartments. In the defensive compartment, Wilson’s GAR dropped from 2.3 in 2021-22 to minus-3.1 in 2022-23. That’s like dropping from the 80th percentile to the 16th.
As Ian discussed yesterday, Wilson’s 2022-23 season should be decorated in asterisks. He missed the first half of the season recovering from knee surgery and suffered a small bone fracture just two weeks later. And for the final twenty games, when the team had effectively given up, Wilson’s most common linemate was the most I-have-given-up player I’ve ever seen, Evgeny Kuznetsov.
I’ve been told by smart people that the timeline for full recovery from an ACL injury is often more than a year. I haven’t seen that personally, but I don’t have any reason to dismiss it out of hand. If true, we should think that Wilson’s fitness in 2023-24 will be better than we saw last season, which will help a lot on both sides of the puck. So he should be better ready to play just as his team stops being extraordinarily bad. These are real reasons to think that last season might have been an outlier, and I suspect some broader NHL analytics pundits might overlook this.
But those people are right on another point: Wilson, 29, will be fighting against the aging curve. His style – dependent on speed and physicality – is the style most likely to age badly in today’s NHL. His contract covers the part of any player’s career where the big downturn happens: the start of the 30’s up until the parade of bodily indignities that is one’s late 30’s. As Ian discussed yesterday, there is an implicit expectation that Wilson will have to adapt to new roles and new usage in the next few years, and with that expectation comes risk.
Cap Friendly identified three contracts comparable to Wilson’s. The third was Milan Lucic‘s 2016 deal, signed for seven years when the heavy-hitting player was 28. Over the duration of that contract, Lucic’s contributions evaporated, as The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn illustrates.
A cautionary tale pic.twitter.com/zFmZMpMR2V
— dom 📈 (@domluszczyszyn) August 4, 2023
Lucic is now a negative-value player, and he would still be so even if he were making a league-minimum salary. He represents the worst-case scenario for how the Wilson contract could play out. Should that be Wilson’s trajectory, the team has to hope that the salary cap rises to the point that Wilson’s $6.5 million cap hit is no longer a fiasco for a replacement-level player.
That doesn’t mean it has to be so. The Capitals surely know more about Wilson’s viability than we do. Someone somewhere has recorded splits on Wilson’s sprints since he returned to the ice, and that person has seen Wilson steadily improving, and that improvement has given Brian MacLellan the confidence to sign a player with an otherwise uncertain future to a long-term contract. But I still can’t help but wonder if MacLellan will even be general manager when this deal expires in 2031.
Undeniably, Tom Wilson is a compelling player. During his rookie season I was outraged that such a dynamic force was wasted in a low-minute enforcer role. We watched him steadily rise to a a kind of stardom, with his biggest obstacle being his own poor decision-making. And then – and I don’t think the general NHL community has properly acknowledged this – Wilson fine-tuned his game, minimized bad choices, increased his scoring, and got even better without the puck. Had his new deal been signed last summer after a triumphant regular season, it would have been uncontroversial. But now this could go badly in a bunch of ways, and to imagine it going well requires a bunch of contingencies all to break in Washington’s favor. That has happened before, and I’ll never count Wilson out, but I’m worried.
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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