Should Caps fans be concerned with the comments that Caps players have had about Tom Wilson? Does the coaching staff and management group follow this line of thought? Do we know if the coaching staff plans on working on this with Wilson? — Tyler A.
Wilson has been suspended by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety four times in his past 105 games, including preseason and playoffs, which is an unprecedented frequency. That’s what led to the harsh sentence of 20 games for Wilson’s illegal check to the head of Blues center Oskar Sundqvist, and Wilson filed an appeal through the NHL Players' Association. His hearing with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to be sometime next week, and Wilson can choose to appeal to a neutral arbitrator after Bettman’s ruling.
It’s not surprising that Wilson’s teammates have defended him after each suspension. He’s well-liked and respected in the dressing room, but even putting that aside, players are generally biased in these circumstances. While I think they genuinely believe Wilson doesn’t deserve to be suspended for so long, I also don’t think they’d ever say otherwise. They’re going to be supportive no matter what, and Capitals fans probably should be happy that’s the case because it’s the mark of a tightknit team.
The sense I got from coaches and management is that, while they expected Wilson would get suspended, they thought it would be for roughly 10 games. Perhaps there was some frustration that, considering Wilson’s history and track record with the Department of Player Safety, he made the poor decision of delivering that forceful of a hit in the team’s preseason finale.
Put yourself in Wilson’s skates, and maybe you start to understand why he’s hesitant to eradicate the physical aspect of his game. It’s what got him drafted by Washington in the first round. And in the season he was suspended three times, Wilson had his best year. He played the majority of it on the top line with captain Alex Ovechkin. He had 14 goals and 21 assists, then notched five goals and 10 assists in the playoffs. He figured out how to use his bruising play and the fear he instills in opponents as complements to his skilled linemates. And then when he was suspended for an illegal check to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in the second round of the playoffs, his third suspension of the season, he not only was told by his teammates that he should continue playing the same way, he received texts from current and former players around the league saying the same. That reinforced Wilson’s conviction that it was a shoulder-to-shoulder check, and considering he had been playing his best hockey to that point, it’s not hard to figure out why Wilson largely wanted to keep doing what he was doing. He admitted he needed to be more careful, but he also wanted to hold on to that part of his game.
But even if an appeal knocks the suspension down some, another offense probably will yield a 40-plus-game ban. That could derail Wilson’s career, so this suspension might be the tipping point for team and player. Pending the appeal, Wilson won’t be available until Nov. 21, so Coach Todd Reirden and his staff have plenty of time to try to coach some of the more dangerous habits out of Wilson’s game. The more hits a player delivers, the more opportunity there is to cross the line, and now that the margin for error is gone, it’s unclear how Wilson moves on from this.
Jakub Vrana has played well beside center Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, which is why Reirden has so far avoided breaking up that line and putting Vrana with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Thursday’s 6-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils wasn’t pretty for any of the Capitals, but it still seems that Brett Connolly is the best option on the top line for now. That trio just had its best game Wednesday night against Vegas and could use more time to build on that chemistry.
I expect we’ll see Vrana there eventually, but I’m most intrigued by the idea of giving recently acquired forward Dmitrij Jaskin a look there. Washington believes the 25-year-old is capable of more offense, and considering he has a similar makeup as Wilson — a defensively responsible big body who’s good in front of the net — perhaps Reirden will experiment with that once Jaskin gets settled in.
I don’t get the sense that Reirden is in a rush to rest any of his players, especially just four games into the season. Defenseman Madison Bowey has been getting on the ice early with coaches to work on his game and then also staying out there late. It’s not good for his development to go too long without playing, and Reirden is no doubt mindful of that. But Bowey played the first two games of the season while Michal Kempny was out with a concussion, and Brooks Orpik has never been a healthy scratch in his four-plus years with Washington. That’s not a decision Reirden would make lightly, and it’s possible he decides to replace Christian Djoos with Bowey. It’ll almost certainly be based on who’s playing well and who’s not.
“That’s a game-by-game decision, and we’ll continue to evaluate to see how things are going,” Reirden said. “Obviously health plays a major role in it. At this point, the six [defensemen] that we played [Wednesday] night did a solid job. . . . As we move further along in the season, we’ll figure out what gives us the best chance to have success on a nightly basis. Sometimes that’ll mean Madison’s in, and sometimes he won’t be in.”
A reliable Swedish news outlet, hockeysverige.se, cited sources that said Capitals prospect Axel Jonsson-Fjallby intends to exercise the European out-clause in his contract to return to his Swedish Hockey League club. I’m inclined to trust that, but for now, Jonsson-Fjallby remains with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate. A team spokesman said Jonsson-Fjallby has no plans to return to Sweden “at this time.” Washington drafted him in the fifth round two years ago, and the organization is happy with his development, projecting him as an NHL fourth-liner as soon as next year. Returning to Sweden just a month into his first North American season probably would sour any relationship between the parties, and perhaps the confusion over his plans means he’s still mulling the decision.