After every game, when Tom Wilson is reviewing his shifts to grade his performance, he’s also analyzing his hits. For each one, he asks himself, “What were my instincts on the hit? Why did I make that hit?” He’s developed a reputation for his physical play, so he put that part of his game under his own microscope by questioning his decision making every time he landed one of his signature bone-crushing checks.
His reaction most of the time? “Wow, that was a great hit. It was a huge hit, but it was a great hit.”
It’s easy to slow down the video of Wilson’s hits and pinpoint what he did wrong or right on each one. It’s harder to apply that same reasoning during a game in real time, when Wilson has seconds to decide whether to hit a player and how he should do it. Now that he’s been suspended by the NHL twice within two weeks this season, the most recent of those causing him to miss the Capitals’ first four games, the fine line between a clean hit and an illegal one has never been more important for him.
As Wilson returns to the lineup Friday night against the New Jersey Devils, he’s trying to strike a balance between staying true to his identity as a bruising power forward and also staying out of trouble with the NHL’s department of player safety.
“For the majority of the past four seasons, you watch pretty much every one of my hits in frame by frame, tenth by tenth seconds, and you can’t find one thing that’s wrong with it,” Wilson said. “They’re textbook body checks broken down even slow. You have to trust yourself. It’s such a fast game.
“That being said, you know what, [being out of the lineup] wasn’t a good feeling. Maybe when I’m approaching a hit, think about it a little more and make sure, 100 percent, that the outcome is going to be clean and make sure the guy’s going to be in a good spot after I hit him and take into account all of those things.”
Wilson was suspended two preseason games for interference on Sept. 23 after his hit on Blues forward Robert Thomas was deemed late and excessively forceful. In Washington’s last exhibition game, also against St. Louis, Wilson was ejected for boarding forward Sam Blais and later suspended the first four games of the season. That second suspension came in just Wilson’s second game back from the interference infraction.
After the first suspension, Wilson said he didn’t intend on shying away from physical play because it’s part of what got him to the NHL.
“I know it didn’t sound good because I went out and got suspended right away, but that’s two hits in five years that have been suspendable,” Wilson said Thursday. He acknowledged it’s on him to adapt to the player safety department’s current standards, and a critique he got was that his hits are “excessively hard.” So when it comes to those huge hits he’s so often admired, “maybe you can’t really finish a guy like you used to be able to,” Wilson said.
A third suspension this season would likely carry even harsher discipline than four games because of Wilson’s status as a repeat offender.
“Just recognize if someone is vulnerable,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “A lot of guys turn their numbers now, which is unfair to the physical players. It’s a weak way to — you know, guys actually expose themselves. Back in the old days, there was not a chance that would happen because you’d get run through the end boards, so you protected yourself and got yourself turned sideways a bit so you could absorb a hit. … It’s lessened, so the players that are more physical or get on the forecheck and want to hit, they’ve just got to be more cautious with those type of guys that will expose their numbers the whole time.”
It’s not just the suspension-worthy plays Wilson will have to avoid. While Wilson’s 133 penalty minutes last year were the fewest he’s had in a season for his career, they were still 82 more than the next Washington player. The Capitals have racked up 20 minor penalties in these four games without Wilson in the lineup as the team has struggled to adapt to the NHL’s stricter standards for slashing. Wilson’s return will help Washington’s penalty kill unit because he typically logs a lot of shorthanded time, and watching these games might have helped him get a feel for how the league is calling certain infractions.
“I don’t know if sitting out was necessarily the right thing for that,” Wilson said. “You see all of the instant replays, and those slashes that aren’t even hitting guys are getting called. It’s obviously a little bit of an adjustment period for the NHL right now, and it’s such a fast game. It’s tough for the refs to see if you got him on the hand or not or whatever. If there’s one thing I take from it, it’s don’t put your stick anywhere near the guy, or you can get a penalty.”
Wilson chuckled that this hasn’t been “the best start” to a pivotal season for him. Trotz has said this is the year Wilson’s goal production needs to hit double digits — the 22-year-old has never scored more than seven goals in a season. Wilson is eager to get back in the lineup and perhaps change his current reputation.
“That just makes me more motivated to get out there and show everyone that I can play and show everyone that I can play multiple aspects of the game,” Wilson said. “Enough people call you a goon, you want to get out there and prove to them that you can score some goals.”