The New Jersey Devils had just scored a power-play goal when Tom Wilson was put out on the ice for the ensuing faceoff to do what he does best, bring energy with big hits and his rookie enthusiasm.
Thirteen seconds into the shift, Devils defenseman Eric Gelinas went to play the puck in the corner of his zone when Wilson raced toward him and delivered a forceful shoulder check. Gelinas, who is listed at 6 feet 4 and 210 pounds, was knocked off his feet and fell to the ice but wasn’t harmed. Wilson received a minor penalty for charging, leaving the Capitals shorthanded again.
It was a moment that encapsulated the learning process for Wilson in his first NHL season. Wilson is a strong physical presence and can hit through opponents with incredible force, something the Capitals don’t want him to change. They do, however, want him to be aware that referees take note of that presence and will pay attention to any check he delivers, which means that Wilson must be aware of how and when he hits and how it could impact the team as a whole.
“It looks bad at first because I come in with speed and I finish, I’m a big guy and I finish another big guy and he goes flying,” Wilson said of the hit on Gelinas. “Honestly, I didn’t think it was a bad hit at all, but a lot of times these days there’s such a fine line with hits. … There’s so much concentration around that right now you’ve got to be careful. They’re always looking to call something on a big hit.
“So I’m just going to try and eliminate the gray area and make sure my hits are shoulder-to-shoulder,” Wilson said, “and pick my moments a little better because we can’t be shorthanded.”
On Dec. 17, Wilson delivered a crushing check against Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn and received a major penalty for charging as well as a game misconduct. He didn’t receive any additional discipline from the league but did have a hearing with Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s vice president of player safety.
That hit made the NHL take notice of the hard-hitting 19-year-old, if it hadn’t already, and it also brought a little more scrutiny on each check he finishes.
Coach Adam Oates said he believes that the penalty Wilson received in New Jersey was a result of the extra attention the rookie is receiving.
“I think that was a little bit of his reputation, maybe, which I’m okay with. The guy’s got to play his game. I think the referees will also see over time that he’s a clean player and he won’t get those again,” Oates said. “There will be a cycle with it where the referees will see, ‘Oh that was actually clean’. I think that Philly hit is still on the surface with referees, which I don’t blame them.”
Wilson said that the coaching staff has been working with him to identify ways to keep the physicality in his game, but make smarter plays to help limit the trips he makes to the penalty box.
One of the alterations is for Wilson to focus on playing the puck just as much as finishing his check, rather than having his priority always be the hit. Oates said that not even experienced players, like the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, who thrives when playing a physical game, always find a perfect balance on when to hit versus making a different play but he is confident Wilson will find an equilibrium with more playing time and opportunity.
“I’ve got to think a little bit more about the puck first. Whether I can get a stick on it and then finish through him or try and lift the stick and then take the body,” Wilson said. “Because if I go in there and my stick’s in the air already and you can tell I’m already looking to finish a guy, a ref sees that too.”
In the third period of that same game in New Jersey, Wilson had a chance to either play the body of his opponent or snatch the puck behind the Devils’ net. When he chose to gain control of the puck, Wilson help set up the play that led to Jason Chimera’s goal – an encouraging sign that the young forward is learning as he goes along even with limited ice time this year.
“He could have hit that guy and he actually put his stick on the puck,” Oates said. “I actually showed his dad that the next day – that’s how we got the goal, because he actually went stick on puck on that play. It’s all part of his growing process.”