Tom Wilson has proven himself to be more than just a lumbering enforcer on the ice, the kind of player who leaves his mark in the form of bruises rather than on the scoreboard.
The Washington Capitals winger has 13 goals and 20 assists this season. Those numbers don’t happen by accident. He’s a skillful player, with his size and speed creating matchup problems that can expose defenses and force an opponent to think twice before closing him down.
That edge to Wilson’s game, aided by his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, makes the 27-year-old a difficult player to compete against. And it also makes Wilson an incredibly polarizing player — that is, with Washington fans standing alone as Wilson supporters in a sea of loathing from 30 other fanbases.
Wilson straddled the line between physicality and recklessness again Monday night during a brawl with the New York Rangers. This time, Wilson avoided a suspension. Instead, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety fined Wilson $5,000 — the maximum under the collective bargaining agreement.
But with his history, there are plenty who think Wilson’s role in the scrum should’ve resulted in another suspension. There are others, too, who see Wilson as a lightning rod, attracting increased scrutiny for his physicality.
“He’s big, he’s strong, and when he gets into scrums and he wrestles, you’ve got to be careful because there’s obviously just, I think with the attention on him, he gets looked at in a certain way,” coach Peter 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.”
Midway through the second period of Monday’s 6-3 Capitals win, Wilson appeared to take issue with the way the Rangers crashed the net. Pavel Buchnevich tried to bat the puck into the net, but goaltender Vitek Vanecek held strong. Wilson then drove Buchevich to the ice, and he punched the defenseless Buchnevich in the back of the head once he was there.
That was just the beginning. Rangers center Ryan Strome pulled Wilson off Buchnevich, then Artemi Panarin jumped on Wilson’s back. Wilson quickly slammed Panarin to the ice twice, with the Russian star narrowly avoiding a hit to his head.
Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon said Wilson wasn’t trying to hurt anyone.
“He’s a big boy,” Dillon said. “I think for the actual scrum itself, I don’t think there’s any malicious intent. All the guys had their gloves on still. I think if Willy really wanted to hurt somebody, he could have done that, you know?”
Panarin will miss the Rangers’ final three games as a result of his run-in with Wilson. Wilson, meanwhile, missed 14 minutes of ice time Monday because of his double-minor penalty and 10-minute misconduct call.
Wilson’s ability to play the Capitals’ final four regular season has Strome and others fuming.
“Everybody in our organization is very disappointed,” New York coach David Quinn said. “We certainly thought it warranted a suspension … A line was crossed: Guy didn’t have his helmet on, vulnerable, he got hurt. To me it was an awful lot there to suspend him.”
“I think it sends a bad message, in my opinion,” Strome said. “I think everyone pretty much agrees with that. And I just think that the league missed one here big time. It’s unfortunate. Our best player’s out for the rest of the year. It’s an unfortunate incident that has nothing to do with the play or the game of hockey.”
Wilson has been suspended five times, most recently for seven games in March for boarding Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo. Then there was the 20-game suspension in 2018 for a hit to the head of the St. Louis Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist (reduced to 14 games on appeal), and the suspension in the 2018 playoffs for breaking the jaw of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Zach Aston-Reese.
Those infractions all happened with the puck in play. On Monday, play had already been stopped by the time Wilson punched Buchnevich and manhandled Panarin.
“Enough is enough,” wrote New York Post columnist Larry Brooks. “Wilson should be banned for the rest of the season and the playoffs, and he should have to apply for readmission to the league next season. A man with no hockey conscience has forfeited his right to play.”
Brooks’ view is on the extreme end of the spectrum, but he’s not alone in the thought. Wilson’s history is there, drawing increased scrutiny with each physical play.
“You all saw what happened, and it happens time and time again with him,” Quinn said. “Totally unnecessary.”
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