On Saturday night, under the bright lights of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Tom Wilson went into the corner, shoved Nazem Kadri off the puck with ease (and not for the last time), and dished it to the greatest goal scorer of all time, who did what legendary goal scorers tend to do.
Just another day at the office for Tom Wilson, who, once maligned as a one-dimensional goon, now seems to have secured his seat on the top line with his franchise’s all-time leaders in both goals and assists.
In the past we’ve pointed out that Tom Wilson’s development as a player has been slow but perceivable. That particular scrivening occurred two years ago, but the trajectory of Wilson’s career remains up-and-to-the-right.
For some perspective here, Tom Wilson is currently picking up points at a click of 1.88/60 minutes of 5v5 ice time, which puts him at third on the team behind only Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. In fact, at evens, Tom Wilson’s boxcars are identical to Nicklas Backstrom’s. At fives, both skaters have 9 goals and 17 assists; Wilson has done it in ~90 fewer minutes. While some of that has to do with a down season from Backstrom, Wilson is throwing off other strong indicators that his game his rounding out — namely his ability to drive possession among the top-nine forward ranks:
The above table can be distilled to the following point: among the Caps’ eight most-skilled forwards who have seen significant time with Willy, only Jakub Vrana sees his possession drag with 43 on the ice, relative to when he’s off the ice. In the case of Vrana, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given he’s one of the best possession players on the team, if not the League.
Notice in the above plot that the blue “Wilson” object here lives above the red line, while the red “43” is far below it. This visualizes that Tom Wilson is one of a handful of Capitals who buoys the Capitals to positive possession play. You’ll notice that his most common linemates, Ovechkin and Backstrom, can make the same claim for themselves. So how do we know it’s Wilson doing the heavy lifting here, and not one of the other guys who, frankly, seem to better fit the bill?
Well for one, the above table shows that Ovechkin and Backstrom both fall beneath the 50% CF dividing line without Wilson manning the right wing. But we can take it one step further, and see that Wilson improves the possession of the Ovi and Nicky tandem, and by no small margin.
But when a guy like Willy can slot in on the top line and not be an anchor, much less be a driver of play, the positive impact trickles down the lineup.
Here’s a breakdown of how the forwards ranks have shaken out over the course of the season.
To wit, when Wilson is slotting in comfortably on the top line, it means you can roll Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie on your second line, and a third line of Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, and Andre Burakovsky.
Through the lens of possession, this is about as optimal a lineup as Barry Trotz can ice, with each of his top two lines vaulting the 50% split (and although the Eller line finds itself on the wrong side of 50, that seems to be a consequence of a rough February. That line was also a possession positive in late January).
So not only is Tom Wilson a compatible third-wheel for the Caps’ best two players, but you can also make an argument that he’s the linchpin upon which hangs Trotz’s option for his best lineup. Note also that Wilson is his squad’s most effective shot suppressant on the penalty kill and most frequent drawer of penalties, and it’s easy to conclude that Tom Wilson, at the ripe age of 23, is quite good.