At his best, Tom Wilson is a rare, nearly unique hockey player, an intimidating offensively skilled old school power forward and a speedy, defensively responsible checker that hits as hard as anyone in the League rolled into a massive 6’4”, 220-pound frame.
At his worst... we needn’t go into detail there, you know what Tom Wilson is at his worst.
And what the Caps are getting from Wilson right now, well, it ain’t his best, which might seem like an odd thing to say about a guy who has provided more goals above replacement (GAR) this season than any other Caps forward:
But the fact is that for a little while now, the Caps have been below 50 percent in expected goals (xGF%) with Wilson on the ice at five-on-five, bottoming out in early March (although thankfully rebounding now):
Unsurprisingly, actual goals-for percentage has followed suit and dipped accordingly - prior to February 2, Wilson’s on-ice xGF% for the season was 49.6 and his actual GF% 56.7; since, those numbers have dropped to 43.2 and 50.0, respectively (if you were to posit that Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Wilson’s most frequent linemates, were worth around seven percentage points of actual over expected goals, you probably wouldn’t be too far off).
So what’s going on? Wilson’s drop-off more or less mirrors that of the team as a whole - a rocky February followed up by a bounce-back March. But that’s a bit chicken-or-egg when we’re talking about the forward who has played the fourth-most five-on-five minutes on the team during that span. Let’s dig deeper and look at what’s happening with Wilson on the ice at both ends of the rink...
This is pretty straightforward: puck luck has shifted. Wilson’s on-ice shooting percentage (i.e. the Caps’ shooting percentage with Wilson on the ice) has dropped from 12.9 to 9.6 percent, and Wilson’s individual shooting percentage here has dropped nearly 75 percent, from 16.3 to 4.4 (1-for-23; luckily for the Caps, Wilson has also potted a power-play goal, a shorty, and goals into and with an empty net over this stretch). The Caps’ expected goal rate (xGF/60) is more or less the same in the two ranges, as are their shot (CF/60) and high-danger chance (HDCF/60) rates. He’s getting the same (heavy) offensive zone deployment. His individual expected goals and high-danger chances have fallen off a wee bit, but this is really all about the bounces, and they’ll be back before long.
Surprise! The number to focus on here is the expected goals against rate (xGA/60), which is up over 20 percent, fueled by a slightly larger rise in high-danger chances allowed. A small uptick in save percentage has prevented the actual goals allowed from looking as ugly, but the process, here, has slipped.
That’s the “what” - essentially the Caps’ five-on-five play with Wilson on the ice has dropped off, with the decrease in goals-for percentage being driven by a lack of finishing at the offensive end while defense and goaltending have held the goals allowed pretty constant, and expected goals falling as a result of underlying defensive decline with offensive chance generation largely the same.
But that doesn’t tell us why.
Part of the why is linemates - prior to February 2, Wilson had spent 57.2 percent of his five-on-five time with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, but only 33.2 percent since.
Wait, that’s weird. Less time with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov has produced the same amount of expected offense but a drop in expected defense?
Turns out it might be less about Wilson’s linemates here and more about his defensive partners (and the context in which that trio has been used). In 76 minutes together since February 2, Wilson has a 35.2 xGF% and 33.3 GF% when skating at five-on-five with John Carlson and Martin Fehervary. In fact, over the course of the season, they’ve been pretty terrible together (likely facing stiff competition, albeit with favorable zone starts):
That’s an abject disaster (and it isn’t pretty on offense, either). By contrast, here’s Wilson without the nominal top pair:
That’s a one-third reduction in expected goals against, and shifts the Caps from basically “League-worst Columbus” to “League-best Boston” defensively. The problem isn’t Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, it’s Carlson and Fehervary. More precisely, the problem is playing those five players together (and often having to go power-vs-power against other teams). Let’s take a look at Wilson’s “spider” chart, which shows his expected goal rates with different teammates:
In the red oval are the various permutations of Wilson, Carlson and Fehervary, including those with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Notice their proximity to the “BAD” label. But it’s not Wilson with Kuznetsov or Wilson with Ovechkin (or Wilson with Kuznetsov and Ovehckin) that’s driving it, as we see those three groupings in the blue oval, much closer to break-even (and, given how we know they outproduce expectations, perfectly fine). Lastly, we see in the green oval Wilson with the Caps’ other four defensemen (Wilson individually with each of Jensen and Orlov falls outside of the oval, but with somewhat similar results). These are players that have performed well together. Wilson’s xGF% this year with Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk is 57% in 107 five-on-five minutes; with Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen it’s 49.1, and they’ve outscored opponents 11-2.
All of this isn’t to absolve Wilson of his part in these struggles, but rather to highlight that if Wilson, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov is going to be the Caps’ top line, they need to be separated from Fehervary and Carlson, as both sets of players need to be complemented by more defensively sound teammates; the offensive upside just doesn’t justify the defensive risk at this point. And with the Caps going all-in on team defense, this change in approach is a must.
But we still haven’t answered the question of why Wilson’s expected goals-for percentage has dipped (or, for that matter, rebounded since). The rebound can be chalked up to his play on a sheltered line with Connor McMichael - the duo (alongside now former Cap Daniel Sprong, for the most part) have been quite good together in limited minutes - while the team has improved, generally. But that dip? What if you were told that Wilson was named to the All-Star team on February 2? Surely you could tell yourself a story about how that honor put additional pressure on him to perform offensively and/or went to his head (after all, crushers who think they’re rushers soon become ushers, as the old saying goes), and you could probably recall some ugly drop passes and similar un-Wilson-like decisions along the way to confirm that notion. And you might not be wrong.
More likely, though, Wilson’s slide reflects (and contributed to) that of his team throughout February, and particularly the struggles of the top defensive pair. But with a sharper eye on deployments, the expected goals will continue to bounce back for Wilson and the actual goals will follow. He’s too good a player for that not to happen, and the Caps need him at his best come playoff time.