In early November, Coach Barry Trotz promoted Tom Wilson to the top line and charged the 20-year-old forward with protecting the Washington Capitals’ two biggest stars. Trotz knew Wilson never shied away from physical play after a rookie season filled with dropped gloves and thrown punches, so in deploying him beside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Trotz wanted not necessarily the prototypical “enforcer,” but rather a hulking presence to make others think twice.
“He can play a game where if people want to take advantage of our top two players, there will be someone to answer to rather than someone who’s maybe a non-fighter,” Trotz said. “I think Backie and Ovi can take care of themselves, but that’s not what they do.”
Instead, it’s what Wilson has done 19 times dating from the start of last season, tied for the most fights in the NHL, including three over the past three games. Sometimes, Wilson fights to goad others into an extra penalty. Sometimes, he acts when circumstance demands a response.
Asked Monday if Wilson needed to fight less frequently to avoid the resulting five-minute major penalties, Trotz rolled his eyes and pursed his lips. No, he replied. This would do just fine.
“Tom Wilson needs to play like Tom Wilson,” Trotz said. “If Tom Wilson starts to play like someone else, then he won’t be on the first line.”
Playing like Tom Wilson has meant different things since the Capitals ushered him into their rotation in 2013-14, when he became one of three NHL rookies to appear in all 82 games. The 16th overall pick in 2012 and a physical goal-scorer in juniors, Wilson accumulated 58 points over 48 games with the Plymouth Whalers, but his initial role in Washington was served exclusively on the fourth line. He finished fifth in the NHL with 14 fights last season, despite averaging fewer than eight minutes each night. Of those who finished ahead of him, none has played in the NHL this season.
When the Capitals hired Trotz in May, before Wilson suffered a broken ankle that required summer surgery, the new coach envisioned Wilson serving a different purpose and expanding the label earned before Trotz arrived. “An elite power forward,” is how Trotz described Wilson’s ceiling, and that vision included many things: pelting pucks on the rush, generating traffic in the offensive zone and throwing haymakers at an opponent’s face, as he did twice last week against the Islanders and once before friends and family in his home town of Toronto.
“Really happy with where he is,” Trotz said. “He wants to go, let him go. You don’t want to take that spirit out of him. From a crusher to a rusher to an usher sometimes, the old saying.”
During Trotz’s playing days, that expression described bruisers who tried to compensate for diminishing interest or ability to play physically by playing with more finesse — and ended up out of the lineup because of it.
This is the line Wilson now straddles. The offensive skills were evident when he scored his second goal of the season in Saturday’s blowout loss to the Maple Leafs, one short of his entire total from 2013-14. But sitting at his locker Monday, Wilson also joked “now’s not probably a great time to ask” about picking battles, because his fighting streak had reached three games.
Thirteen games into his second NHL season, delayed by the ankle surgery and broken up in the middle by a minor lower-body injury, Wilson hasn’t yet talked with Trotz about dialing back the bouts. He has logged more than 15 minutes of ice time in six games, which happened zero times last season, and for six straight nights he has remained beside Ovechkin and Backstrom, at once conscious of the moments when they need protection and the detriment of fighting at the wrong time.
“I just think it’s knowing, when you’re at this level being professional, knowing the right time to do it,” Wilson said. “You can feel the game out, know the right time. [Trotz] knows. He understands I’m mature enough to pick my spots, but if he ever felt I wasn’t fighting at the right situations, I’m sure he’ll pull me aside and we’ll have the chat, for sure.
“If you’re playing on the top line with those two guys, you don’t want to miss any shifts. It’s important to build chemistry and keep the four lines rolling in the momentum of the game. If you want to change something up, a fight’s not always a bad thing. It’s definitely picking your spots, making good trade-offs and stuff like that.”