The whole league seems to be talking about him, but Tom Wilson has little to say. He is a few weeks removed from his most notorious incident yet — a body-slamming scuffle that led to calls for his complete banishment from the National Hockey League and attention from outside traditional sports media. Wilson is still employed, and he has done his job, offering some conciliatory but careful words about his style of play.
“Nothing I say right now is going to change anybody’s opinion — they’ve already made that up,” Wilson said earlier this month after receiving a $5,000 fine for his latest infraction. “I’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
But on Saturday night at Capital One Arena, Wilson offered a loud rebuttal to his critics: the first goal of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Then, Wilson bookended his statement when he set up the Capitals overtime game-winning goal. That put Washington up 1-0 in their best-of-seven first-round postseason series against the Boston Bruins.
As later confirmed by the NHL’s video review, Wilson smartly kept the puck onside before sending it cross-ice where T.J. Oshie and Nic Dowd finished the job. Wilson jubilantly threw his stick in the air as the puck crossed the goal line.
When Wilson was drafted 16th overall by the Washington Capitals in 2012, he was advertised as a punishing, irritating forward — but with the talent to back up his antics with his opponents. However, in his first few years in the league, Wilson was used mainly for his less savory tendencies under former Capitals coaches Adam Oates and then the first couple of years under Barry Trotz.
It’s only over the last handful of seasons that Wilson has been put in a position to use his other skills, and he has found a place on the top two lines, creating space for his slicker linemates such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom while tallying over 20 goals two straight seasons before the latest shortened campaign.
“He’s got to play his game,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said earlier this season, attempting to provide some nuance to Wilson’s play. “He has to be hard to play against. He has to be physical.”
In Game 1, he found the balance between that physicality and offensive contributions. Wilson was credited with three hits but also had four shots on goal, tied for the team-high. He skated almost three minutes on the penalty kill in his usual frontline role on Washington’s shorthanded unit.
That physical, skilled game Saturday night resulted in him being one of the best Caps on the ice, judged by both an attentive eye and through more advanced statistics shown in this graph from Corey Sznajder.
His game was not perfect, and neither is Wilson. He is not a wholly misunderstood player who makes a very rare mistake; he has made illegal hits and taken reckless penalties. At 27, Wilson has already been suspended five times in his career, including a seven-game span earlier this season.
Those actions acutely hurt the Washington Capitals.
But in Game 1 of playoffs, Wilson was vital to the Capitals’ victory — one that put them 15 wins away from their arduous goal of winning the Stanley Cup for the second time.