But General Manager Brian MacLellan acquired two strong, tough players this offseason in forward Garnet Hathaway and defenseman Radko Gudas, and the complementary additions have allowed the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Wilson to open up his game.
“I just think that when you have more guys playing a harder game, the team does better,” MacLellan said. “Often if someone is playing that way, it brings the other guys up to that level, and they want to play that way, too. They set the tone for the game.”
With Hathaway and Gudas on board, Wilson no longer is the sole hard-hitting presence, and he is less obligated to take fighting majors. In the Capitals’ first 16 games, both Gudas and Hathaway have dropped the gloves to stand up for their new teammates. Wilson has taken notice — and so have all the players in the room.
“I mean, in years past, if there was a hit or a teammate that needs to be stood up for, you know, I was kinda the guy that was going to do it,” Wilson said. “And I still am, but now there are two to three other guys who are willing to do it as well.”
Still, Wilson said when he finds himself in situations when fights happen “really quick” on the ice, he will be in the middle of it. The difference now is in slower-developing situations: An opponent delivers a big hit, and there is a chance to reciprocate on an ensuing shift.
Wilson, who has no fighting majors and is second on the team with 39 hits this season, also said opponents looking for a fight no longer are always looking for him.
MacLellan was quick to note that the team acquired Hathaway and Gudas not solely with Wilson in mind and that Wilson has to play his game no matter who is in the lineup.
“It doesn’t have to be the same guy every night, and it’s going to be the same thing with them,” Wilson said. “If they get hit, there are still going to be two guys there to stand up for them. That’s what is great about a team and what is great about having guys willing to do it. It is a group mentality, not just one guy by himself trying to take on the whole team.”
Alex Ovechkin, also a physical presence for the Capitals, said there is now less pressure not only on Wilson, but everyone. T.J. Oshie said mentally it is a little easier for Wilson to just focus on hockey and scoring goals, but he is still going to be physical and drop the gloves if he has to. Wilson already has 12 points (five goals, seven assists). Last year, Wilson had 22 goals and 18 assists in 63 games after missing the first 16 because of a suspension for an illegal check to the head.
“Everything right now is fast, and it’s not a lot of tough guys out there,” Ovechkin said. “Teams don’t want to play against us because we play physical.”
Hathaway, who leads the team in hits with 41, and Gudas, who is third with 34, aren’t the only depth players getting involved. Wilson points to a Capitals preseason tilt against the Chicago Blackhawks. Neither Hathaway nor Gudas were on the ice. When Martin Fehervary got hit on his blind side near the boards by Andrew Shaw, Wilson instinctively skated directly over, but Tyler Lewington swooped in and dropped the gloves before Wilson could. Wilson got pinched against the glass trying to get out of the way as Lewington and Shaw started trading punches.
“You know, usually on a team there are a couple guys who are willing to do it, and it is no different on our team,” Wilson said. “But like I said, those guys play hard, and they play the right way.”
Capitals Coach Todd Reirden has praised Hathaway and Gudas for stepping up for their teammates, with Gudas in particular commanding respect in the room.
Gudas stood up for defenseman Michal Kempny against the New York Rangers on Oct. 18, dropping the gloves with Brendan Lemieux five minutes into the first period after a high hit in Kempny’s season debut. The next game, a 5-3 win against Chicago, Gudas got in a tiff with Connor Murphy, who Gudas said hit Ovechkin “unnecessarily” at the end of the first period.
“One hundred percent, you want to be on a team that is willing to fight,” Gudas said. “Doesn’t look for it, but is willing. . . . Teams don’t like playing against us right now, and when we play to what we are capable of, it is fun to be a part of a group that wants to play a similar style to myself.”
Hathaway fought once in the preseason and once Oct. 18, against the New York Rangers’ Brendan Smith. After Michael Haley hit Dmitry Orlov, Hathaway took exception and challenged Smith to a fight. Hathaway fought with a broken nose, which he had received from a hit from Jacob Trouba earlier in the game.
Hathaway said finding his game and being able to fit into his role has been a growing process since he started in the league in 2015. But he accepts his physical presence and knows, if it’s implemented effectively, opponents will notice that he is on the ice and will “always be on edge.”
“I don’t think he’s changed his game, I think it’s just complemented well with me and Gudas,” Hathaway said of Wilson. “It’s so nice not to have to play against those two guys and Ovi too. I think we are all on the same page that it is necessary for us to be physical and take on that role to help the team.”