As Tom Wilson skated toward Colorado’s Jarome Iginla behind the net, Iginla was confident the Washington Capitals forward wanted to fight. The two had just exchanged words after Iginla took issue with a play by Wilson’s teammate, Lars Eller. Iginla was also aware of Wilson’s history.
“My thought is, he is a guy who fights and is yelling at me before, standing on the bench and all that stuff, so I was expecting [a fight],” Iginla told the Denver Post.
But Wilson didn’t want to fight, and although they tussled, Iginla was assessed an extra minor penalty for instigating. Just three games into the season, the incident demonstrated that although Wilson wants to develop his offensive game and avoid dropping the gloves as often, his reputation lingers.
Many hockey players who start their careers as a physical presence are pigeonholed as fourth-line energizers. Just a handful of current NHL players have managed to redefine themselves as skilled contributors.
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In his fourth season, Wilson wants to join that list. That means being more strategic in his hitting and limiting how often he fights.
“I don’t want to be just a physical player,” Wilson said. “I want to be able to use that as a tool, make the defense know I’m there on the ice so I can use that. They’re expecting me to finish my check. They know I’m going to finish my check. That creates space for other guys. If I can go in, they’re expecting me to hit them, maybe I can use that and take the puck. Just using a variety of different methods and just being hard, and hard on the forecheck and smart, is going be what I’m trying to do for my game.”
A reputation as a fighter can be tricky to shed. Fighting is down in the NHL; last season marked the fewest fights per game (0.28) since hockeyfights.com began tracking them in the 2000-01 season. In today’s NHL, pure enforcers are a dying breed, and as a result, fewer players are known for regularly dropping their gloves.
In Washington’s lineup, Wilson is the only player with that reputation, so if an opposing player is looking for a fight, the search begins and ends with Wilson. He has fought three times this season, most recently with Toronto’s Matt Martin on Saturday.
Wilson said he never expected to find himself fighting when he started playing Canadian junior hockey, but his big frame and hard body checks meant he needed to defend himself. He was Washington’s first-round pick in 2012, expected to someday regularly score. But making the Capitals’ roster during the 2013-14 season meant he had to play on a fourth line, averaging less than eight minutes a game, and fight when the situation called for it.
Other players can relate to Wilson’s situation. Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds said that he was “just running around hitting guys” early in his career, anything to not get sent down to the minors. According to hockeyfights.com, Simmonds has fought at least four times every regular season. Milan Lucic, now with Edmonton, said he fought often in his first few seasons to help him carve out a role in the lineup when he was with the Boston Bruins.
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Lucic fought 13 times as a rookie and 10 times the next season, according to hockeyfights.com. But as he started playing and scoring more, he dropped the gloves less. He fought just three times last season.
“That’s kind of how I had to start off and make a name for myself,” Lucic said. “But I knew deep down that I wasn’t going to allow myself to be one-dimensional in that sense because I knew I had the ability to be an effective player and I had the hands and the skill-set to be able to be more than just a fourth-line guy that fought. That was more of a personal thing than anything.”
Wilson fought a career-high 14 times as a rookie. Current Washington coaches and members of the front office have expressed regret over how he was used that first season, wondering whether he would’ve been better served spending another year with his Canadian junior team developing his offensive game. After fighting 12 times during the 2014-15 season, he did so just seven times last season.
Each fight comes with a risk of injury, especially to hands. After Wilson fought with Martin on Saturday, he briefly left the penalty box for minor repairs to his bleeding hand. Wilson said Edmonton’s Zack Kassian repeatedly asked him to fight in a game earlier this season, but he declined.
“Veteran guys that were tough and had fought in the league gave me advice,” Wilson said. “A guy like John Erskine said, ‘You can always fight on your terms.’ When you’re not fighting on your terms, that’s kind of when bad stuff happens. Obviously, there’s going to be times when you make a check and you defend yourself. If a guy’s just skating around the ice asking you to go, you don’t have to fight that guy. There’s no reason for you to have to fight him if nothing’s happened.”
As he has gotten more selective in his fights, Wilson has applied a similar approach to his physical game. Wilson now hits with a purpose: to create offensive chances.
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“If you’re playing 15, 16 minutes it’s harder to be running around finishing your check,” he said. “That’s pretty exhausting. You also want to be smarter when you’re going in on the forecheck; you want to be able to turn pucks over for your linemates. You’re not just going in making that big hit for momentum or to create space; you have that offensive mentality that you want to get the puck back. It’s a little bit different and something I’ve thought about going in, staying stick first and trying to strip pucks instead of just trying to kind of blow the guy up and make a big hit.”
Physical play naturally leads to more penalties. But after finishing each of his first three seasons with more than 150 penalty minutes, he has been whistled for just three minors this season. Wilson has played 2,717 minutes in the NHL, and he has had a whopping 507 penalty minutes, which has almost certainly stunted his development. As he has often put it, “You can’t score from the box.”
“Even a few of the referees last year at the end of the year were coming over to me and saying the young Wilson kid, he’s playing and he’s getting better,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I think he was earning their respect was what they were really saying, if you read between the lines.”
Fewer penalties enable Trotz to trust Wilson in elevated roles. Through 21 games, Wilson is averaging the most minutes (13:03) of his career, and he is on pace to finish the year with 82 penalty minutes, half as many as a season ago. He has carved out a niche as a dependable penalty killer, and Trotz hasn’t been hesitant to play him on a top-six forward trio.
Wilson played with skilled forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson for a five-game stretch, and he acquitted himself well. His production has steadily increased with each season. He had a career-best seven goals and 16 assists last year for 23 points, but to start this season, he has just one point, a goal he scored on Oct. 29. In recent games, he has been back to playing on a third or fourth line.
Lucic and Simmonds were bruising body-checkers before they were steady point-producers; neither was expected to be the 20-plus goal-scorers they eventually became. Those are optimistic examples for Wilson; Trotz said before the season that he doesn’t expect him to score 30 goals but would like to see him reach the mid-teens in the next year or so.
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Simmonds said changing the perception that he was just a physical, defensive player was a result of “seizing the moment” and fortuitous timing. He developed a scoring touch by studying Ryan Smyth when they played together in Los Angeles and trying to emulate Smyth’s strong net-front presence. When Simmonds got his chance higher in the lineup after being traded to the Flyers in 2011, he played well enough to stay there, scoring at least 28 goals in every non-lockout season since joining Philadelphia.
Wilson trains with Simmonds in the offseason and said he considers him a mentor, admiring how he has seemingly perfected the balance of physicality and production with a reputation for both.
“He’s a very smart player and also has that physical side to his game,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of players that have that when they need it, when they want to play that way, that can play the offensive game when they want.
“We have been talking about that with me for a couple of years each season, last year developing a little more. As long as I kind of continue to use my physicality to be effective is just a good way to put it.”