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Tom Wilson: Gamechanger or Game Changed?

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A look at the power forward’s pre- and post-suspension play

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“You can’t change his game. He’s got to be a power forward, he’s got to play the same teams, he’s got to play fast, he’s got to drive nets, he’s got to drive bodies and that’s what he does.” - Peter Laviolette on Tom Wilson, in the wake of his return from his latest suspension

In many ways, for better or for worse, Tom Wilson embodies what the Caps want to be as a team: he’s big, fast and skilled, and the mere thought of him on the ice can change the way opponents play the game (and structure their roster).

At his best, Wilson is a responsible and skilled top-six forward, a terrific penalty killer, and an intimidating physical presence. At his worst, well... you know.

“What you do is you try to learn from it and see where adjustments can be made so that it doesn’t get near that line of what would be acceptable and unacceptable,” Laviolette said immediately before the quote at the top of the page. “So I think you’re constantly working on, ‘What’s the line?’ and trying not to cross that line.”

Right now, Wilson might be spending too much time trying to learn from the League’s inconsistent application of justice and not enough time playing the type of game that makes him so valuable.

“They need a better Tom Wilson than they’ve had since he’s come back from the suspension,” NBCSN Washington’s Alan May put it bluntly on Japers’ Rink Radio earlier this week. “Right now he’s not engaging in any physical contact and that really hurts him.”

To wit, here’s a look at Wilson’s hit rate at five-on-five this season:

data via NatStatTrick

If you guessed that he got suspended after game 21, you win a prize. Pre-suspension Wilson was at 13.2 hits/60; post-suspension that number has dropped to 5.9. Even with the caveat that hits are a notoriously subjective (and poorly kept) stat, the picture painted here is clear as day: Wilson hasn’t been the same player, physically, since returning (though perhaps he’s back on the upswing of late).

The big question, of course, is whether or not this less-physical Wilson has been a less-effective Wilson. Well, let’s take a look at the five-on-five stats before and after the suspension (flags are meant only to indicate a meaningful relative difference between the two values, with green being better than red and yellow being a wash; they do not ):

data via NatStatTrick

Surprisingly enough, Wilson has been better since his return, as indicated by on-ice metrics like expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) and scoring chances (SC), but got better results (actual goals-for percentage, or GF%) in the first set of games, thanks largely to a huge difference in on-ice save percentage between to the two sets (something that is largely beyond a winger’s impact). Wilson put up more individual offense in the first set, though he’s getting more chances now... and committing fewer penalties.

It would be easy to create a narrative in which this Department of Player Safety-neutered Tom Wilson is playing the game “the right way” now, and it shows, but there’s one more piece to consider here, and that’s his linemates:

via HockeyViz

Pre-suspension, Wilson’s most frequent center was Nicklas Backstrom, his most frequent left wing some guy named Jakub Vrana. Since the suspension, he’s spent alongside a pair of Russians, and that has also meant more favorable zone starts. And the difference is pretty stark:

data via NatStatTrick

Again, other than actual goals (those pesky things), Wilson has been much better with Kuznetsov than Backstrom (owing in part, no doubt, to more favorable deployments), and supercharged when Ovechkin is added to the line.

Okay, so what’s the bottom line here? To begin with, we can disabuse ourselves of the notion that the only effective Wilson is an overly aggressive Wilson; his effectiveness is almost certainly driven more by whom he’s playing with than how physically he’s playing. That said, he needs to play “his game” and not be overthinking it when he’s on the ice - his numbers dipped upon his return, but have rebounded since, as he’s slowly ramped the physicality back up.

via MoneyPuck

Causation? Correlation? Who knows. One thing is for certain, though - the Caps need Tom Wilson at his best come playoff time. And it looks like that might be what they’re he’s trending toward.