No, this one was unnecessary, and it should be beneath him. He is too good of a hockey player, and he is watched too closely by both the NHL and the international hockey media, to do this to himself and his team.
The playoffs are approaching. His franchise, thinned by injuries and suspensions, deems him worthy of wearing an “A” on his sweater because that’s who he is in its dressing room and on its bench: a leader. And the rest of the sport scoffs, saying he disrespects the game.
“There are lines that can’t be crossed in this game,” New York Rangers Coach David Quinn said Monday night. “To me it’s just zero respect for the game in general. … You saw what happened, and it happens time and time again with him. It’s just totally unnecessary.”
Parse that quote as we would parse any of Wilson’s jarring hits, which is to say with as much scrutiny as the Zapruder film. Did Wilson cross a line when he hit Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head while Buchnevich lay on the ice during the Washington Capitals’ 6-3 victory Monday night? Dismiss it as a “scrum,” as Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette did afterward. It says here Wilson should be better.
Wilson and Buchnevich had been battling in front of Washington goalie Vitek Vanecek, who had been whacked on the left pad by Buchnevich. In the tussle, Buchnevich ended up on the ice. The play was over. Washington was already shorthanded because Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Justin Schultz didn’t dress, then captain Alex Ovechkin left with an injury after a single shift. The Caps trailed. Why do anything with Buchnevich’s head? It cost Wilson a $5,000 fine — though not a suspension.
But this part of Quinn’s assessment — “It happens time and time again with him” — is off, and not by a little.
Quinn is right about this: Wilson always seems to be right where he is now, at the center of controversy. The Capitals are always left to defend him. Most of the time, that defense is reasonable and warranted, even if it’s drowned out by the rest of the league. It has become too easy to say, “There goes Wilson again,” which is essentially how hockey social media reacted Monday night and Tuesday morning.
And then later Tuesday, the Rangers called for the job of George Parros, the former tough guy who now serves as the NHL’s head of player safety. They called Wilson’s actions “dangerous and reckless.” That’s the world in which he lives, and the familiarity brought by this season — in which the Caps play only the seven other teams in the East Division — clearly breeds contempt.
But Wilson deserves to have each case looked at individually. Go through the hit Wilson delivered to Boston defenseman Brandon Carlo in March, and there’s a way to blame it on Carlo’s head being lowered to Wilson’s shoulder level rather than Wilson rising to target Carlo’s head. The Capitals spend a lot of time watching hits from around the league that are dismissed as hockey plays, then comparing them to hits Wilson delivers, and throwing up their hands. It no longer matters. Wilson’s hit on Carlo cost him seven games — seven games in which his team was without one of its top six forwards, not a fourth-line enforcer.
But what happened Monday night wasn’t what “happens time and time again” with Wilson, despite what Quinn said. Wilson is unafraid to fight, to defend his teammates, but that’s not what normally draws ire. Here, it was avoidable. Given the status of his team’s compromised lineup, not to mention Buchnevich’s position below him on the ice, it would have been easy and appropriate for Wilson just to lie there, pressing his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame on him.
If the message had been delivered that way, there’s no need for Rangers center Ryan Strome to pull Wilson off Buchnevich, no reason for Rangers star Artemi Panarin to jump on Wilson’s back, no need for Wilson to slam Panarin to the ice, maybe the scariest part of the episode. It all resulted in 14 minutes of penalties — including a 10-minute misconduct — issued to Wilson, which left the Caps with just 15 skaters.
And then, before he put his sweater back on, Wilson flexed from the penalty box. For some players, that would be theater. For Wilson, it draws more scorn.
There is a disconnect between how the Capitals — and how Capitals fans — view Wilson and how the rest of the league views him. That was true when Wilson drew a suspension for a hit on Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. It was true when Wilson was suspended for the first 20 games of the 2018-19 season — a suspension that was later reduced to 14 games — for an unnecessary hit on St. Louis’s Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason finale. It was true after the Carlo hit in March. It was true after Monday night.
But block out the noise where Wilson is concerned, and this is undeniable: The Capitals need him on the ice. Not to protect their other players, though he is perfectly capable of that. They need him because he is good at hockey, and he changes their team. He plays with Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom not only because — when he is at his best — his physical presence creates more space for the team’s longtime goal-scoring duo. No, he plays there because he can contribute, too. Wilson’s assist and empty-netter Monday night gave him 33 points in his 43 games this year, a career-high 0.77 points per game. His value, his skill, get lost after incidents such as Monday’s.
When Wilson was out after the hit on Carlo resulted in a concussion, the Caps went 7-0-0. That’s a fluke, and it’s not sustainable. Tom Wilson’s reality is that he is watched, hawklike, by every NHL authority — both official and self-appointed. He is of no good to his team if he’s not on the ice, so he must do whatever he can — and refrain from anything extra — to remain there.
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