Spaced out over the next month, we will feature end-of-season profiles for every player on the Washington Capitals, a year-in-review of sorts looking at their statistics, story lines and such. The full list of published pieces can be found at the end.
Up now, restricted free agent right wing Tom Wilson.
The evolution of Tom Wilson in his first three seasons with the Capitals has been steady. Wilson has gone from being a rookie enforcer to a trusted penalty killer, a power forward trying to be a disciplined and strategic agitator.
The 22-year-old, who will be a restricted free agent for the first time, almost certainly be back next season after a significant pay raise, as teams rarely part with restricted free agents. General Manager Brian MacLellan seemed to project a valued role for Wilson.
“You know, we miss Ward. Joel Ward — he’s the kind of guy we needed in the playoffs,” MacLellan said. “You know, you make changes, and he’s a guy that we wanted back and we didn’t get back. We missed that skill-set. I think it’s on us to turn Tom Wilson into Joel Ward. It’s on Tom and on us to turn him into that kind of guy that has a net-front presence, that finds loose pucks, finds rebounds, plays good along the wall.
“I think Tom is our answer to that.”
Ward was with Washington for four seasons before he signed with the San Jose Sharks in free agency last summer for a longer-term deal than the Capitals likely would’ve been able to offer. Wilson has said he looked up to Ward and admired his patience and knack for being in the right place at the right time to often score with tips or off rebounds. From a production standpoint, Wilson made progress this season with seven goals and 16 assists, and his ice time jumped two minutes per game. But as a former first-round pick, he’s often criticized for not having more offensive upside. His numbers also pale in comparison to Ward, who had 21 goals and 22 assists this year.
“I think I’ve improved every year, and the numbers have improved every year,” Wilson said. “I’ve taken more responsibility on every year, so going into my fourth year, I just need to continue to improve, and I think I have potential to do that and just take on more responsibility, become a bigger part of the team and be a leader on the team. Three years have flown by.”
In hopes of keeping Wilson out of the penalty box so much, the Capitals gave Wilson penalty kill responsibilities, and he excelled in that role thanks to his long reach. Coach Barry Trotz also started to trust him in late-game defensive situations if Washington was protecting a slim lead.
Wilson still struggled with discipline, finishing with 163 penalty minutes, and he has had at least 150 penalty minutes in every NHL season. It’s worth noting that Wilson draws 2.21 penalties per 60 minutes, the second-most for players with at least 70 games this season. His lack of discipline led to an in-game benching by Trotz on at least two occasions, and while Wilson has never been suspended for an illegal hit, he was fined by the Department of Player Safety in the postseason after kneeing Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary. In an effort to shed his enforcer reputation, Wilson fought five times less this year.
“I mean, he’s got a ways to go,” MacLellan said. “He made strides this year. He’s turned into a good penalty-killer. More disciplined in his physical game. To get him to the next level, I think we need to — offense needs to become part of his game.”