At some point, Tom Wilson has to change, and that point is right now. Whether he skates Wednesday night when the Washington Capitals open their season — and here’s a news flash: He won’t, because he will be suspended — is academic, of course. The Caps have their rings and the Stanley Cup will be in the house and the banner will rise and all is right with this franchise, still such a heady thought.
Wilson’s suspension to open the 2018-19 season? Who freakin’ cares? They’re the champs. Wilson could miss 10 games, the Caps could lose all 10, and you can still fire up the video of Braden Holtby making “The Save” or Lars Eller scoring the winner. Those were forever memories created last spring, and Wednesday night will be one last chance to share it with the fans.
“This will bring closure for everyone,” veteran forward T.J. Oshie said, “that what happened was real.”
But what’s also real is Wilson’s penchant for inserting himself into situations like he is in now, with his morning skate replaced by a hearing in New York, where all of hockey — including the Capitals — expects him to be suspended. Wilson won’t be hurting anyone during the entire month of October, like he did Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues during a meaningless shift in a meaningless preseason game Sunday.
Check that. He will be hurting his own team.
Why in the name of Lord Stanley would a player carrying Wilson’s weight (218 pounds) and his reputation (shaky) hit anyone in a preseason game?
“He needs to be aware,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said, “of how they’re determining what’s legal and what’s illegal from the league’s standpoint.”
Listen, it stinks to be writing about this right now. It really does. We should be dissecting the Capitals’ Stanley Cup rings (252 diamonds, 35 rubies and one sapphire apiece), wondering whether Todd Reirden will ably replace Barry Trotz (or, God forbid, if it’s a Davey-Dusty situation, just across town and on ice), and reveling in the celebration before the season opener against the Boston Bruins. I mean, goodness gracious, a banner will be raised to the rafters at Capital One Arena. That remains a stunning phrase to type.
But at some point, this disruption is on Wilson. By ramming his shoulder into Sundqvist’s head — leaving Sundqvist face down on the ice, blinking away the stars — he hijacked the story line for the opener and the early part of the season. There’s really no way to ruin what’s about to happen Wednesday night, with the Caps arriving on a red carpet, with an outdoor viewing party clogging the streets of Chinatown, with a group hug that could bring back all those feelings from that Thursday night in June.
Still, in reassembling almost the entire roster that won Washington’s first Cup, the Caps bet not only on the cohesion they developed last spring. They bet on Wilson, and heavily. A restricted free agent, they gave him more years — six — than was expected because they believe so strongly in who he is and what he brings. This isn’t some fourth-line goon. This is the right wing on the line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, a player the Caps deemed worth $31 million even though he has never scored more than 14 goals.
This is a thoughtful, smart 24-year-old who cares deeply about his team, about winning. Whenever Ovechkin retires and gives up the “C” from his sweater, find someone among the Capitals who thinks Wilson won’t be the obvious next choice. It’ll be tough.
And yet the Caps’ run to the Cup involved a Wilson suspension, three games of the second-round series against Pittsburgh. Why three games? Well, he was already a previous offender. His hit that broke the jaw of Penguins bit player Zack Aston-Reese looked legal, from the Capitals’ perspective.
But put that debate aside, and be clear about this: We can break down each borderline Wilson hit over the years — and if you want to go through them all, set aside some time, because the list is getting longer — and parse it for appropriateness. But at some point, as none other than Sidney Crosby said, “When a guy does it a handful of times, you start to question what the intent is.”
Believe me: I know you don’t want to hear from Crosby, of all people, on this (or any) topic. But in addressing the matter with reporters in Pittsburgh this week, the Penguins captain was thoughtful, acknowledging the edge Wilson brings to the Caps. But Crosby’s word carries weight, and there’s no way his thoughts don’t align with others around the NHL.
So the league — players and officials, both on the ice and off — starts to question Wilson’s intent. Internally, the Caps can argue that Sundqvist’s head was down, that Wilson’s shoulder went through Sundqvist’s shoulder first, that his stature as a man of 6-foot-4 makes it harder for him to get low enough so that he’s hitting another player in the body, not the head.
“He’s penalized, I think, for his size and strength,” Oshie said.
Except here’s the problem: he ain’t getting any shorter, and it’s not really in his interest to get weaker. This isn’t the 1980s or ’90s, when Chris Chelios or Scott Stevens could seek out vulnerable players with their heads down and knock them into next week with no ramifications. The NHL has a responsibility to protect players from concussions. It’s a moral one, of course, but let’s be real: It’s also a legal and financial one.
And so here Wilson sits, on the eve of a ceremony Washington has never enjoyed. MacLellan will accompany his young forward to New York.
“We’re just going to have to continually monitor how suspensions and hitting are being doled out,” MacLellan said, “and we’re going to have to adjust to it as an organization.”
The adjusting starts with Tom Wilson. Playing the way he’s playing might provide the Capitals an intimidation factor when he’s on the ice. But for the opener, he almost certainly won’t be on it. That won’t change what happened last spring, and the goose bumps that still brings. It will, however, change the season at hand, which means Wilson must change, too.
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