Hockey is a physical game played extremely fast by talented players. Although hitting has gone down in recent years, there is still a place for it.
The St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals won the Cup by being physical, getting in on the forecheck and playing strong team defense. The NHL is going fast with teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadians and Tampa Bay Lightning put a heavy emphasis on speed and skill over just simply bruisers and brawlers. How many enforcers are there really left in the NHL? Ryan Reaves, Michael Haley and Mark Borowieci are the only ones that get regular playing time off the top of the head.
Guys with little skill who are on the ice simply to throw their bodies around and fight if need be. Fights aren’t a common occurence anymore, as six led the league last year, which brings us to Capitals forward Tom Wilson.
Wilson is an extremely talented player who has broken out the last couple of seasons. In the 2017-18 season, Wilson scored 35 points in 78 games while also totaling 15 points in 21 games in the Capitals march to the Stanley Cup. In the 2018-19 season, Wilson saw his playing time with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin go way up and scored 40 points in just 62 games which, over a full season, would bring him around 50 points which is very respectable. No one can deny the obvious talent that Wilson brings to the table and he isn’t just a plug in the Capitals top six. The cap hit for Wilson sits at a touch over five million, so with the low salary cap of the NHL, he needs to produce. Wilson is one of those guys who can throw his body around and that is a massive part of his game. Unlike Reaves, Wilson can put in 20 goals and hit. Following in the mold of power forwards like Wayne Simmonds are David Backes and players who had scoring touch but were extremely physical. When he’s able to play a full season, Wilson is routinely in the top five of hits. The reason he has not been able to play a full season at times is not because of injury, but because he has been suspended for dirty hits.
All over the league, there are guys that are amazing at getting players off their game. Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins could make the Hall of Fame just based on his ability to irritate. What makes Wilson different is, unlike a majority of players who are just meant to be irritating, Wilson seems to be out to hurt people. Injuries happen and predatory hits happen every season. Nazem Kadri was suspended in the playoffs last year because of a dirty predatory hit. Brent Seabrook laid a dirty hit years ago on Backes, but by no means is Seabrook a dirty player (nowadays he is barely even a player). Kadri can be a dirty player, but the focus remains on Wilson. Wilson is in rarefied air for NHL players. He has been suspended four times in his career and missed 105 games due to those suspensions. Roughly 20 percent of Wilson’s career penalties have been majors (five minutes), he also has 11 misconducts and one match penalty. His last suspension was 20 games for a dirty hit to the head of Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. Very few players have ever had a suspension of that length. The only way to get a suspension number that high is to be a repeat offender.
What makes Wilson dangerous now is he knows his next suspension will be on the 40 game variety, because that’s how the NHL does things. The NHL does not have the guts to suspend him for that long. So he roams around freely. In his last game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Wilson knocked out two players with hits. Both hits could have been considered charging penalties as they were way after the puck was let go of. Adding to that, though, is he appears to have raised his knee and extend the damage on both Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin. If a normal NHL player lays that hit, it is easily a one or two game suspension but with Wilson it will be nothing because the NHL isn’t going to suspend him until he does something worth a 40 game suspension. I could go on another rant about how awful George Perros is at running the Player Safety division, but Wilson is a special special case of incompetence shown by that department.
Wilson is a good player and a key piece on a very talented team that has a chance to win a second cup in three years. He is also the most hated player in the league right behind Marchand and draws much of the ire of opposing teams fans. He deserves it, though with all the dirty hits he lays and injuries opposing players have suffered.