There are few names that drum up hockey fans at large with such visceral rage as Tom Wilson. His introduction to the league has been well-documented as a young, tough, ultra-physical, trash-talking specimen Capitals’ fans adore. The rest of the league’s fans, not so much. Especially in Boston and New York these days.
His name was thrown into the spotlight again this week for being named to his first NHL All-Star game, replacing teammate Alex Ovechkin, who was voted the Metropolitan Division’s captain, but now must sit out the festivities in Las Vegas due to testing positive for COVID-19. Wilson won’t wear the “C” at T-Mobile Arena. That’s been passed to Flyers’ forward Claude Giroux. Wilson is amid a career year, registering 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists), as a constant linemate with Ovechkin and fellow Washington All-Star Evgeny Kuznetsov. To those who think his place at the NHL’s showcase is undeserved, you’re dead wrong.
First, the NHL’s selection process for the All-Star game is dumb. It’s not a true game of the best players in the league when every team must have one representative take the ice. It’s subjective in part to have the most attractive players for television ratings and live-event engagement. Wilson no doubt checks both boxes. It also makes a ton of sense that one of Ovechkin’s teammates, a legitimate All-Star game captain, takes his place. After Kuznetsov, the next-highest-deserving Capital is Wilson. Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie have missed too many games this season.
When looking at the given criteria, shouts of Wilson’s past behavior being the reason he shouldn’t be in Sin City right now are not only wrong, but invalid. Has he been among the top-tier group of consistently productive players in the Metropolitan Division since the beginning of season? Yes. And that puts him in contention for this honor. If you’ve watched any of Wilson’s 43 games this season, you’ll see a top-line player furthering his development. Playing beside the best pure goal-scorer in NHL history (Ovechkin) and one of the most creative passers in the league (Kuznetsov) will do that. He’s reaping the benefits of playing alongside elite players.
Plus, Wilson’s current big-picture reputation is flawed. He embraced the over-the-top physical nature of his playing style too well after hitting his stride in Washington. While being an integral forward, he served four suspensions over the span of 13 months in 2017 and 2018 for out-of-bounds actions. Oddly enough, the Capitals’ only Stanley Cup in history took place during that stretch as well, where the Canadian didn’t refine his play and flirted with playoff exclusion twice, first for a hit on Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg and another on Pittsburgh’s Brian Dumoulin. Third time was charm during Game 3 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals, where No. 43 was suspended for a trio of playoff games for an illegal check to the head of Zach Aston-Reese. Wilson returned for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa Bay.
It was after the last of those quartet of involuntary sit-outs that Wilson’s game heavily matured. The physical nature conformed within the rules of the game, getting under opponents’ skin by towing the line of what’s allowed, picking up some harsh minor penalties along the way sometimes on reputation alone. The overall potential Wilson showed as a member of the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League finally showed up then too, scoring 40 or more points for the first two times of his NHL career.
Old habits are hard to break. And suspension No. 5 did happen less than a year ago, a deserved seven-game suspension for a high hit on Bruins’ defenseman Brandon Carlo. Less than two months later, Wilson was the instigator of a line brawl against the Rangers after punching a grounded Pavel Buchnevich, which he was fined $5,000, the maximum allowable under the league’s CBA. Nowhere in the league’s punishments for the situation did it mention fellow combatants Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin. The checks and balances of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety worked as they should in that scenario.
Calls for his suspension from that line brawl were silly from the start. Panarin and Strome jumped on Wilson’s back and it’s not his fault they’re weaker and can’t hold their own in a scrap. By deciding to further provoke Wilson, they agreed to his fury. The true unprofessionalism came from New York’s front office in that situation with a childish statement unfairly attacking Wilson. Hope that the $250,000 fine was worth it. Oh, and any shred of credibility the Rangers had after that statement was gone after Buchnevich was ejected from a rematch two days later for cross-checking Capitals forward Anthony Mantha. Buchnevich was hit with a one-game suspension and hefty fine. In reality, the situation was squashed in that May 5 matchup as the hockey players handled it the old-school way — with their fists on the ice.
I bring up Wilson’s past here to signify that he’s still got demons he may never outrun. Punching Buchnevich was idiotic. The check to Carlo was completely avoidable. What made him a repeat offender with league suspensions would’ve derailed the NHL career of a player who didn’t have elite skill outside of being a goon. And this season, his play deserves All-Star recognition. That combination of physicality and offensive talent would be something any NHL team would sign. If you think your favorite franchise is immune, you’re crazy. Both the Bruins and Rangers would take him tomorrow if he was on the trading block for the right price. Boston has deserved All-Star Brad Marchand, who won’t be appearing in Las Vegas. And New York employed Sean Avery for six seasons. Both fit into the agitator category, like Wilson, all in different ways.
If suspension No. 6 for a despicable action takes place, throw out all goodwill that brought him to the league showcase. Wilson should take the chance to mend a few fences on a league-wide level from this weekend. He’ll compete in the hardest shot event during the skills competition Saturday. Why not be an entertainer and win some fans with the league’s eyes at the home of the Golden Knights? And if Wilson’s a good boy and this appearance doesn’t help him, so be it.
Before the NHL withdrew from the Winter Olympics, Wilson was on Team Canada’s list of eligible players. The Canaidians have the deepest pool of players in the world to choose from and Wilson was thought to be a longshot to wear a Maple Leaf in Beijing. However, that’s a much harder list to even crack than being an NHL All-Star. If Wilson’s professional reputation wouldn’t keep him from wearing the colors of his country, why would his past reputation spurn other parts of his current success?
Be mad that an improving Wilson gets the honor of playing at the All-Star game. His involvement shouldn’t move the needle in a negative direction. And when Sunday comes and goes without incident, no one will care he got to skate for the Metropolitan Division next week. That’s why any outrage about his selection is, at best, misguided. In a game where a consensual fist fight earns you exoneration after five minutes in a public box, barbarism is here to stay. If Wilson doesn’t relapse into another suspension, he’ll be in Washington’s core of trusted players to stay. And you’ll keep hearing about him.