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Willy or Won’t He? On Team Identity and Picking Your Spots

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Wilson has evolved into a key player for the Caps over the last few seasons - but last night he took a step back, and it cost the team.

Philadelphia Flyers v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When Tom Wilson first made the opening night roster back in 2013, it was pretty clear what role he was being cast in as an 18-year-old rookie. Skating fourth line minutes, he quickly became a well-known enforcer, mixing a propensity for dropping the gloves with the capacity for a huge bone-shaking hit.

It was a niche role, one he was very good at filling (and which made him public enemy #1 in many an NHL barn those first few years) - but arguably not a role that particularly added much value to a team with Cup aspirations, and certainly not the role the team likely hoped he’d play when they took him in the first round the previous summer.

Over the past two to three seasons, however, Wilson’s game has undergone a much-needed and well-documented evolution. He’s become a permanent fixture in the top six forwards, a key member of the team’s resurgent penalty kill, and the embodiment of what made this team successful in 2018: the perfect combination of physicality and skill.

Last night, however, he seemed to revert back a bit to his old ways… and it cost the Caps.

Let’s be clear - the burden of last night’s disappointing loss to the Flyers does not fall solely on Wilson’s or really any single player’s shoulders. As has been the case with many of the team’s losses of late, the finger of blame can be pointed in any number of directions, on and behind the bench.

That said, Wilson’s antics certainly didn’t help, and most likely hindered his team’s efforts to earn a crucial two points. He seemed generally off his game from the start, taking himself out of position to make big hits for no reason and letting frustration creep into his game.

But the culmination of all of that was him dropping the gloves, not once, but twice, in a span of roughly 20 minutes.

Sure, he won both fights handily (for all that “winning” a fight matters), but the result was the Caps being without one of their top players for a total of 12 minutes, preventing the top line from finding any sort of flow early in a close game. His two stints in the box bookended a sloppy, disjointed second period overall for the Caps, one that saw them get outscored 3-1 and turned the momentum of a game in which they actually had a decent start.

As his coach noted after the loss:

“It is a point of strategy, but that was a situation tonight that he’s someone that’s important to our team,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said of Wilson’s two trips to the penalty box. “There’s a fine line there.”

That strategy, and the team’s search for that elusive “team identity”, does speak to the tough spot Wilson is put in at times because of the role he plays, both as a leader and a physical presence. When the team isn’t playing well, they tend to search for the physical side of their game to get back on track — particularly against tough rivals like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Part of Wilson’s job is to help set that physical tone, and last night it seemed like he was trying to do too much of that on his own rather than focus on his game.

The problem is that as a top-six forward, there’s less and less of an upside to Wilson dropping the gloves these days - the loss for the Caps is simply much greater than it will be for almost anyone willing to take him on. He’s almost assuredly more important to the Caps than his fellow combatant is to his team. Five minutes of Robert Hagg or Nate Thompson in the box in exchange for five minutes of Wilson off the ice? Yeah, the Flyers will take that trade-off every time, and did, and it helped fuel their win.

All that said, there’s no particular need for concern because of one bad night. Last night was most likely nothing more than a blip on an otherwise stellar, disciplined season for #43. Even with his 12 penalty minutes in that loss, Wilson’s still on pace for his lowest PIM total ever (after setting a new career-low last season); his fights last night were his first in over two months, dating back to December 16 against Columbus, and he hasn’t lost a game to suspension since that hefty punishment that cost him 16 games (on a reduced 20-game sentence) to start last season.

Last night he simply lost himself a little bit. He’d be wise to learn from it and move on - because he’s just too important to the team, and they’ll need him at his best heading into the postseason.