Just hours before the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony, forward Tom Wilson was suspended 20 games by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the teams’ preseason finale. Sundqvist suffered a concussion and a shoulder injury on the hit.
Wilson’s fourth suspension in his past 105 games, including preseason and playoffs, was in part assessed for “an unprecedented frequency of suspensions in the history of the Department of Player Safety,” according to a video explanation the department released with the ruling. In addition to being out of the lineup for Washington’s season opener Wednesday night, Wilson won’t be available until the Capitals’ Nov. 21 game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Based on his average annual value, he will lose $1.26 million in game checks. The money goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
The team expects Wilson to appeal the suspension. He has 48 hours to provide written notice of an appeal to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, but it’s highly unlikely Bettman would overturn the decision. Wilson could then appeal to a neutral arbitrator, and in both cases, Wilson would remain suspended during the appeal process (unless the full term of his suspension has run). The NHL Players' Association said in a statement that it is “reviewing the supplemental discipline decision and will be discussing it further with the player.”
The Capitals did not make General Manager Brian MacLellan available to media.
Wilson was slated to play on the Capitals' top line with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and captain Alex Ovechkin. He’s coming off a career season with 14 goals and 21 assists, which earned him a new six-year, $31 million deal, and his physical play has been a strong complement for skilled linemates because he can clear space for them and is menacing on the forecheck. Washington brass has encouraged Wilson’s bruising style in the past — and even St. Louis General Manager Doug Armstrong told reporters Wednesday that there were 30 teams who’d want Wilson if the Capitals ever made him available in a trade — but this suspension is the league’s way of sending the 24-year-old a stern message that he has to change.
"There are certain ways they are calling things,” MacLellan said Tuesday. “You need to be aware of how they’re making their calls on suspensions. He’s a big, strong guy who skates really well. There is a lot of force behind his contact. … It’s an issue, obviously, but we are where we’re at. We’re just going to have to continually monitor how suspensions and hitting are being doled out and we’re going to have to adjust to it as an organization. We’ll also state our case on what we think is happening, too.”
The suspension for the first quarter of the season is a blow to Washington because he continues to take up a roster spot and the already salary cap-strapped team must carry Wilson’s $5.17 million cap hit in the interim. The Capitals were already forced into designating defenseman Michal Kempny for injured reserve and forward Travis Boyd for long-term injured reserve to clear the necessary salary cap and roster room for spare players. If injuries pile up, Washington could be in a bind.
The Capitals claimed 25-year-old forward Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers on Tuesday because MacLellan felt the team’s forward depth was “vulnerable.” In Wednesday’s season-opener, winger Brett Connolly is taking Wilson’s place beside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Jaskin, who scored six goals with 11 assists in St. Louis last season, could make his debut on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
Wilson’s repeat-offender status significantly impacted the length of the suspension. The 20-game ban is the most severe discipline the Department of Player Safety has handed down since Raffi Torres was suspended 41 games in 2015. It is one game fewer than the suspension doled out to former Capitals player Dale Hunter after he injured the Islanders' Pierre Turgeon with a blindside check after Turgeon scored a goal in the teams' 1993 playoff series.
The Department of Player Safety considered this hit on Sundqvist “a high, forceful hit, which makes Sundqvist’s head the main point of contact on a hit where such head contact was avoidable and causes an injury.” Sundqvist was eligible to be checked and could expect a hard check while cutting to the middle of the ice, but “Wilson takes a poor angle of approach that picks Sundqvist’s head and makes it the main point of contact,” the department’s video said.
Wilson’s in-person hearing with the Department of Player Safety Wednesday morning in New York lasted less than two hours. He was also suspended last season for three playoff games in the second round after an illegal check to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese. Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said Wilson, who is 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, “gets penalized, I think, for his size and strength.” During Washington’s road trip in Western Canada last October, Wilson met with George Parros, the head of the Department of Player Safety, to review video of what the league found objectionable about his hits.
“There’s more force being driven through my hits, so I have to be more careful," Wilson said in May after his third suspension. "… I think anyone that’s watched hockey can admit that the game’s changing. Those big collisions, the league’s making us aware that they don’t want those anymore.”
This story will be updated.
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