This is a concept I’ve wanted to discuss for a while, but was never really sure how to express it. I had thought about making a video about it, but wasn’t sure that my rambling on-camera about this subject would be the best way to get my point across. Then I thought that writing an article about it would be good – but, even then, I wasn’t sure what I’d write that could help to prove the point that I see so clearly in my mind. Perhaps coming up with a title gave me pause; I zero in on which word to use in the title for the piece. “Important” seemed too grandiose and too large of a stretch, and “polarizing” seemed too obvious. Then I happened upon a video on Twitter of Mike Rupp being interviewed on the Pat McAfee Show. During the interview, they discussed Tom Wilson, and Rupper used an analogy that finally inspired me to fire up my laptop and buzz away on my keyboard about what I had been wanting to say for so long. Tom Wilson is the “nuclear weapon” of the NHL — all 32 teams hate him, but all 32 teams want him.
Now, before I say anything more, I know that statement is thrown around almost as much as “rent free,” and is nearly a meme at this point, but it’s true and it’s a valuable point. Tom Wilson is a player that all 32 teams want on their roster. That can’t be said about all players in the league, and it especially can’t be said about players who have never surpassed 50 points in a single season in their NHL career unless they’re an elite shutdown defenseman or a goalie (even though Wilson 1000% would have a 50-point season if the league played full 82-game campaigns the last two seasons). Yet, to the dismay of many fanbases across the league, he is still one of the most sought-after players in the game today. And, if it’s not him that teams are seeking, it’s a player that fits his build and playing style. This is why Tom Wilson is the league’s nuclear weapon, as Rupper put it. He doesn’t put up the most points and isn’t the most skilled player in the league, but his ability to play the game of yesteryear while also keeping up with the modern pace of play is a unique skill-set that makes him stand out amongst a league that is the most skilled it’s ever been. Wilson’s game has established itself as the league’s model of what a power forward should be.
His Early Days
After playing two seasons with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, Wilson was selected with the 16th-overall selection by the Washington Capitals in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. I’d tell you who else they selected with their 11th-overall pick, but I don’t want to upset Capitals fans…
After a brief stint with the Hershey Bears in the AHL Playoffs, Willy made the jump to the NHL Playoffs in the Capitals’ 2013 first-round matchup with the New York Rangers. From that point on, he was essentially a mainstay with the Capitals (aside from a two-game conditioning stint with Hershey in 2014-15).
Wilson entered the league at the perfect time as a cap-stricken Washington team needed to fill out their lineup with players on cheap deals, and Willy’s entry-level contract was the perfect fit. Aside from being a solid financial fit for the team, he also was able to fit the enforcer role that the Caps needed seeing as how he was already roughly 6’4 and 200lbs at age 19. It was during this first year where he established himself as a serious physical threat, engaging in 14 fights and accumulating 151 penalty minutes. His 14 fights were the most among rookies and fourth-most in the entire NHL.
Also during this season, Wilson threw what proved to be the first in a long line of questionable hits when he absolutely trucked Philadelphia Flyer, Brayden Schenn.
He then also threw this massive hit on Lubomir Visnovsky in the first round of the 2015 postseason in the Capitals’ series against the New York Islanders. Visnovsky never returned to the series.
However, Wilson wouldn’t have his first run-in with the Department of Player Safety (DoPS) for something other than a diving fine until December 16th, 2015 (after two full seasons in the league), when he received a match penalty and one-game suspension for a hit to the head of Ottawa Senators’, Curtis Lazar. Nonetheless, the one-game suspension was eventually reversed and he wouldn’t receive anything for the hit.
At this point in his career, Wilson wasn’t recognized as being much more than a big, young and reckless kid, who looked to be a bit of a menace whenever he had the chance. In present-day terms, think of the Boston Bruins’ Trent Frederic; just a player who can get under the skin of opponents, but who doesn’t provide much more than that
To get an understanding of how people viewed Wilson when he was a younger player, look no further than prior to Game 1 of the 2017 first-round matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Willy only had 7 goals, 12 assists for 19 points in 82 games that season leading into this matchup. Before Game 1, then-Head Coach of the Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock, was asked his thoughts on Wilson leading into their series. Babs responded, “Nothing against (Wilson), because he works hard and all that, but he’s not as big of concern as a lot of people on their team. He’s a forechecker and he works hard, I think their fourth line has been real good for them. In saying that, they’ve got a lot of players that we’ll concern ourselves with more.” Then, almost as if he knew I would write this piece one day, Willy went out and buried the overtime game-winner in that first game of the series and then, when he was asked if he had seen the comments, told the media, “I do have Twitter.”
So, to summarize, Wilson was more-or-less viewed as a forechecking, bottom-six forward by other teams around the league. However, that would all change the following season.
Development of the “Goon” Title
Tom Wilson really started making a name for himself — and not in a good way — in the 2017-18 preseason when he was suspended twice; Both for hits on St. Louis Blues players and only eight days apart. The first was a two-game suspension for elbowing Robert Thomas, while the next one was a four-game suspension for boarding Sammy Blais.
He remained clean in the league’s eyes throughout the regular season until the playoffs where there were four incidents that caught the eyes of not only the DoPS, but also hockey fans. In the Caps’ first round series vs. Columbus, Wilson had a hit on Alex Wennberg that was reviewed by the DoPS that didn’t result in any supplementary discipline. Then, in the second-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he and Ovi combined for a hit on Brian Dumoulin that frustrated more than just Penguins’ fans.
He finally went too far (by the DoPS’s mercurial standards) when he smoked Zach Ashton-Reese in Game 3 of the second round, breaking the forward’s jaw and giving him a concussion. He received a three-game suspension for the hit.
I think it’s safe to say that this hit — arguably the most debated hit in the history of hockey — is what crossed the line for fans of teams not called the Washington Capitals. From here on out, Wilson was a no-good goon who threw cheap-shot hits exclusively.
Of course, it didn’t help his case that he threw another questionable hit on Jonathan Marchessault in the Stanley Cup Final. However, he received nothing for this hit either and hoisted the Stanley Cup after a Game-5 victory in Las Vegas. Moreover, he racked up 15 points in 21 postseason games while playing on the Capitals’ top line. This stat alone showcased that Tom Wilson was a unique (if polarizing) player, as one game he would have fans calling for his head on a platter for his antics, while simultaneously being praised by others for his physical play and offensive contributions on the grandest hockey stage there is.
An example of this came from the Head Coach of the Vegas Golden Knights during that Cup Final, Gerard Gallant, who said during his appearance on Missin’ Curfew that “Tom Wilson [is] the reason why [I don’t] have a Stanley-Cup ring on [my] hand today.” That’s pretty high praise from a well-respected hockey mind. You don’t get that kind of praise from your opponent’s head coach if you’re just a goon, otherwise Barry Trotz would’ve been singing Ryan Reaves’ praises post-Cup Final.
Here’s the full video for those interested:
Of course, Wilson’s name was solidified as the most hated player in the league during the 2019 preseason when, yet again, he was suspended for hitting a St. Louis Blues’ player. The victim this time around was Oskar Sundqvist, and the punishment was a message-sending 20-game suspension that was eventually cut-back to 16 games after Wilson launched an appeal process.
From this point on, Willy was public enemy #1 to the rest of the league, and every move he made would be under a magnifying glass.
This is why, after receiving a questionable seven-game suspension for a hit on Brandon Carlo of the Boston Bruins earlier in the 2020-21 season, hockey Twitter exploded after an altercation between Tom Wilson, Pavel Buchnevich and Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers led to one of the most highly talked-about events in the history of the sport — no exaggeration.
The result of what is now hilariously referred to as, “the Tom Wilson incident,” was a highly criticized punishment of only a $5,000 fine, which meant Wilson would be playing in the Capitals’ next game…which was against the Rangers.
Prior to the rematch, the New York Rangers released a statement in which they expressed their disappointment with the league for not suspending Wilson after his “horrify act of violence,” and ended the statement by emphasizing that George Parros, the head of the DoPS, wasn’t fit to continue in his current position. To add salt to the wound, Rangers’ icon, Mark Messier, said that the team lacked toughness when asked about “the Tom Wilson incident,” on The Michael Kay Show.
Following the release of this now-infamous statement, the Rangers fired their President and GM the next day. This, of course, only heightened the anticipation for the upcoming rematch as it appeared that Wilson’s actions had dismantled an entire NHL franchise overnight; Something the Rangers will deny to this day.
The Capitals-Rangers rematch became one of the most highly anticipated regular-season games of all time, drawing in viewers from all over the hockey world to see just what would unfold after “the Tom Wilson incident.” The result, as we all know by now, was a line brawl off the opening faceoff, a fight (and a win) for Wilson, two more fights, and a T.J. Oshie hat-trick (in his first game back after the passing of his father) in a Capitals’ win. Needless to say, it was one of the most emotional regular-season games ever played.
The aftermath of the game was a $250,000 fine handed out to the Rangers for their comments made in their statement. Following that, the Rangers went out and traded away skill-player, Pavel Buchnevich, for someone with more toughness in the previously mentioned, Sammy Blais. They quadrupled-down on acquiring toughness by signing back-to-back Cup champ, Barclay Goodrow, to a six-year deal, signing Jarred Tinordi, and trading picks away for NHL heavyweight (and Wilson’s rival in the media), Ryan Reaves. This, of course, was to ensure that nobody could push them around like Wilson had, and to engage in the exact type of “horrifying acts of violence” that they were appalled at not long prior to these moves.
Needless to say, no one player has single-handedly altered an opposing franchise the way Wilson did to the Rangers. It, of course, only speaks to his uniquenesses as a player that there have been multiple teams that have made roster moves specifically to handle Wilson (the other being the Penguins, who also brought in Reaves, Erik Gudbranson, and Jamie Oleksiak).
After all of these close run-ins and questionable plays, Wilson has been branded “the league’s most hated player,” and (for those who prefer one-word synopsis him) a goon. However, although fans of other teams may disagree, Wilson is not a goon.
Wilson’s True Value
When it comes to Tom Wilson, his naysayers and fans of rival teams are quick to look at some of the plays I’ve shown and label him as a no-skilled goon who throws dirty hits. In fact, Wilson’s name has become so infamous that fans of teams that only see Washington twice a season view him as their most hated player in the league.
While it’s true, Wilson will throw his weight around when the opportunity presents itself, it’s completely untrue that he’s simply just a goon (i.e., a person who has no prowess at the game of hockey, but is out there solely for the purpose of fighting and/or injuring people). If that were the case, the Capitals would’ve been done with him a long time ago and he never would have sniffed a shot at playing for Team Canada’s Olympic team. Wilson’s questionable hits and meetings with the DoPS have come as a result of him playing the game as fast and as hard as he possibly can inside of his 6’4, 220lb frame. When you have that much height and weight (and most of the weight is muscle) hitting you at the speed of a moving car, there is bound to be some explosiveness.
That’s where Wilson’s value lies, which is (ironically and poetically enough) also the thing that draws all the negative attention towards him. He plays the game as hard as he can possibly play it. Although that seems like something all NHL players do and the reason they are where they are, it isn’t. Lots of first-line players and superstars do not work or play as hard as Wilson does.
When asked in an interview with Nick Kypreos and Justin Bourne for the Real Kyper & Bourne Show on the FAN 590, about his hard play and whether it’s natural or something that he consciously figures out mid-game, Wilson said, “I think the physicality and stuff is always gonna be natural to me…I’ve always taken pride in playing the game hard and playing every shift hard.”
And while it is his natural ability to play the game fast and hard at his size that makes him a standout player by itself, Wilson’s value isn’t solely based on his forechecking ability and his willingness to play his hardest game every night. Other role players provide that, so what is it that makes him so valuable?
It’s what those role players don’t have: His skill.
Tommy Wilson is a two-time 20-goal scorer, was on pace for 20+ goals over an 82-game campaign last season, and is on pace for 24 goals this season. He is on pace for 59 points this season, which would be a career high for the veteran winger and is a more-than-respectable point total in the NHL. He can put the puck in the net at a high rate, he can make plays and can still hit you harder than just about anyone else in the league. Not to mention, if someone tries to step up to him, he can put them down. In that same Real Kyper & Bourne interview, Kypreos said to Wilson that “[He is] the Bob Probert,” and that “[He is] the measuring stick,” when it comes to toughness in the new National Hockey League.
Not to mention, Wilson plays in all situations for the Caps. He’s on the power play, he’s on the penalty kill, and he plays on their top line at even strength. The team can trust him because he has developed his game into one where he plays the hard and responsible two-way game and rounded out his offense to become a perennial 20-goal scorer.
If you couple his role-player work ethic and size with his elite skill level, you have a player we haven’t seen in the league in quiiiiiiiite some time.
His best comparable would have to be…
Some people may make the argument that Willy is only getting points because he plays with Ovechkin. A fair argument could be made there since Ovi generally puts up a point-per-game. But, Rupper had a great counterpoint in his Pat McAfee Show interview. Rupper said, “If Ovi didn’t wanna play with Tom Wilson, guess what? Tom Wilson would never see the ice with Alex Ovechkin. Ovi wants to play with him.”
So, yes, other guys could play on Ovi’s line and it’s possible that they might put up better numbers, but there’s no doubt that the greatest goal-scorer in hockey wants Wilson on his line, and that isn’t the case for all guys that are hard on the forecheck. Ovi likes playing with Wilson and it’s obvious why: He can keep up with Ovi’s skill level, he will go absolutely anywhere on the ice to get the puck, and he’ll take care of anybody that’s in Ovi’s business.
But hey, “don’t just take my word for it,” look at what Director of Amateur Scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning (one of the best drafting teams of the past decade), Al Murray, has to say about Tom Wilson:
One of the best amateur scouts in hockey says that Tom Wilson is one-of-a-kind. Again, similar to the Gallant comments, you typically don’t hear that about bad hockey players. This would make you assume that, if Wilson is a player that provides one-in-a-million value, every team in the NHL would want that player. I mean, who wouldn’t want a player that can do something that no other players are doing?
He’s only 27, and he’s already played his 600th game — and not just in the league, but with the Washington Capitals — and that speaks to not only Tom Wilson’s maturity level, but to the trust that the Capitals franchise has in him. This is something that is 100% earned by a player. There are a lot of fans that are of the opinion that Willy will be the next captain of Washington, and there aren’t a lot of reasons to dispute that thought. But who would’ve thought that would be the case when Wilson entered the league in 2013? It’s a testament to his growth as a player and what he brings to the table every game. It’s also a testament to his game that, when Wilson and the Capitals are in town, a lot of teams are focusing their attention on him and not the big dogs. He demands their attention.
Tom Wilson is a unicorn, a shooting star, a one-off, and, the phrase I like the best: Tom Wilson is the nuclear weapon of the NHL. A powerhouse of a player that all 32 general managers (the presidents of their respective teams/countries) hate to see their team line up against, but who, deep down inside, want so badly to have one of their own.