Consecutive Suspensions Cost Tom Wilson Benefit of the Doubt

Posted October 3, 2017

(Caps Outsider)

Fresh off of a two-game preseason suspension, Tom Wilson will now find himself out of the lineup as the Washington Capitals open the regular season on Thursday.

In his first game back from a two-game ban – the first of his career – Wilson once again found himself under the league’s microscope. This time, it won’t be meaningless preseason games that the 23-year old grinder misses. Instead, his second suspension in as many weeks due to an incident against the St. Louis Blues will lead to him missing his team’s first four games of the regular season following a mostly dreadful stretch of warm-up games for the Capitals.

For what seems like the third or fourth straight season, Wilson enters the 2017-18 campaign with breakout expectations surrounding him. The Capitals recognized such expectations last summer when they handed Wilson a two-year, $2 million per year contract extension. He followed up a career-high 23-point season in 2015-16 with a 19-point effort last year while seeing mostly fourth line minutes, as he had in years past.

The issue at hand now is the precedent that has now been set for Wilson’s future. He has been a fairly volatile figure around the NHL since he came into the league, routinely posting penalty minute totals that sit near the top of the league. Many of those come from the fighting majors that Wilson racks up. A fair fraction of those fights, however, result from many of the hard, potentially borderline hits that he has accumulated over time.

Tom Wilson fights Justin Falk.

To the surprise of many, Wilson had never been suspended prior to this preseason. He is no stranger to being in hot water with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, though, and the past two weeks have put a strong end to any possibility of Wilson getting off easy on any future hit that is of an even remotely questionable nature. Very quickly, it is getting harder to defend Wilson’s actions for the few that still can.

A former first-round pick, Wilson’s progress from a hockey-playing standpoint has been slow and not always steady. His original development was probably ruined by Adam Oates, who essentially deployed Wilson as the resident goon. Recently, Wilson was buried on the fourth line of a back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy-winning squad. In this role, he developed his game to become one of the Caps’ most reliable penalty killers and earned more ice time in the process. This past offseason, the organization lost Justin Williams, the top-six right winger who departed for Carolina. Wilson was one of, if not the favorite, for this empty slot. At worst, he was probably a strong bet for a third line role.

Instead, he will find himself watching from above as his teammates open the season this week. After that, it is anyone’s guess as to what happens. Wilson’s discipline is one thing that seemed to improve last season despite some controversial hits, but now, with two subsequent suspensions under his belt, he no longer has any kind of benefit of the doubt – from his coaches or the NHL.

It is going to be extremely hard for head coach Barry Trotz to trust Wilson in any kind of a major role on the team moving forward. This wasn’t a short series of bad incidents, because the league has likely had their eye on Wilson for a significant amount of time now. It is even more puzzling that Wilson’s hit on Sunday, which was hard to gauge due to the game not being televised, came in his first game back from the original suspension.

One can’t help but think that under the right circumstances, Wilson could become, at worst, a middle-six winger with elite penalty killing potential. But as he prepares to enter restricted free agency after this season, he is rapidly losing time to prove himself as a player worth keeping long-term. With two bans now hanging over his head and his face firmly painted as one of the DOPS poster boys before one important game has even been played this season, Wilson will have his work cut out for him.

With so many question marks surrounding this year’s Washington Capitals, the team needs Wilson to carve out a more important role than in the past as soon as he gets back. A lot of things will have to go right for the Caps to replicate and expand their recent success, and an efficient and disciplined Tom Wilson is certainly one of them.