Tom Wilson is no stranger to the target on his back.
The Caps right winger knows that he has a reputation, but he’s ready to put that in the rearview and continue to focus on his game rather than social media or continued criticism.
“Nothing I say right now is going to change anybody’s opinion,” Wilson said matter-of-factly. “They already made that up and I just got to keep moving forward.”
Under the lights of Madison Square Garden and in the midst of what he thought was a “routine scrum” as he engaged with Pavel Buchnevich following what he perceived as a kick to Vitek Vanecek, Wilson explained that he felt someone on his back putting him in a chokehold.
In the heat of the moment, he made a decision that would throw him into the spotlight and make for arguably the craziest 72 hours of the 2020-21 NHL campaign: Wilson turned and shook off Artemi Panarin, wrestling the star to the ice. As a result, Wilson received a roughing penalty and a game misconduct, while Panarin would exit the game and suffer an injury that ended his season early.
After receiving a $5,000 fine for roughing Buchnevich — the maximum allowed under the CBA — Wilson believed that would be the end of it.
“I never thought all of this would have blown up,” Wilson admitted, adding, “You have guys jumping on your back and I think anybody’s first reaction would be to just throw them off you and wrestle them down to the ice... those scrums are chaotic and there’s a lot going on.”
The following 72 hours would be enough to cause whiplash. New York released a statement expressing disappointment in the NHL Department of Player Safety and George Parros, and in a strange turn, dismissed general manager Jeff Gorton and president John Davidson, though this decision was said to have nothing to do with the statement.
On the ice, it led to an old-school hockey showdown in the Caps-Rangers rematch just two days later, where a line brawl opened play and Wilson found himself in a fight just seconds into his first shift.
Hindsight is now 20/20 for Wilson, who said he reached out to Panarin and is ready to move on and leave it all in the rearview rather than further look at the play from all angles.
“It’s a lot easier to watch everything in slow motion after the fact and dissect every tenth of a second. Hockey scrums, anyone that’s been in one, they’re crazy,” Wilson explained. “There’s sticks, there’s skates, by the end of the scrum I’m holding my head trying not to get cut by a skate, I’m getting punched in every direction. There’s a lot going on so I don’t think it’s fair to go back and say maybe I would have changed this. It’s a hectic moment.”
While Wilson’s known for his physical style, he’s also a major contributor on the Washington forecheck. He has 13 goals and 33 points through 44 games this season (he missed seven games following a suspension for a hit on Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo), which would put him on pace for a career-high 62 points in a full 82-game campaign.
However, a stained permanent record and several disciplinary actions over time has put a cloud over Wilson, which has further impacted how he’s perceived.
“I don’t think people see things clearly when it comes to Tom with things he’s involved in,” Lars Eller said. “I think there is already a biased opinion. I’m not just talking about random people. TV people, journalists that have a voice and are using it.”
NOT SO FAST!!! Tie game pic.twitter.com/90xKKWuDFO— x - Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 30, 2021
Given his offensive skillset and presence in the locker room — and with the Capitals having faced adversity and several shorthanded situations this season — it’s understood that he must be present on the ice, and head coach Peter Laviolette has made that clear.
“He’s big, he’s strong and when he gets into scrums and he wrestles, [I told him], ‘You’ve got to be careful’ because, I think with the attention on him, he gets looked at in a certain way,” Laviolette said. “He has to play his game, he has to be hard to play against, he has to be physical, but in the same sense, he’s got to know that eyes are on him as well.”
Wilson’s received the message and shared that he’s had conversations with Laviolette and management regarding his play. He also notes that although it’s a hard-hitting game where the goal is to get stronger and faster in the offseason, he needs to be aware of the surrounding circumstances as the focus shifts to being an offensive contributor en route to what the Caps hope is a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run.
“There’s guys of all different shapes and sizes that play the game of hockey,” Wilson said. “I’m 6’4, 225 and I guess Lavy’s point is, ‘You have to be aware of that.’”