Wilson’s evolution has been rewarding
los angeles — San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon kept his eyes on the puck as it sailed toward him. He reached his hand up to bat it down, but before he could get control of it, a 6-foot-4, 217-pound figure knocked him out of the play. This was the kind of big open-ice hit for which Washington forward Tom Wilson has become known, but there was a purpose behind it — to remove Dillon from the action so the Capitals could regain possession.
Wilson’s point production this season (six goals, 10 assists in 66 games entering Saturday) is on pace to roughly match last year’s, but he’s made strides in other ways. Wilson has found a way to balance an intimidating physicality with situational awareness. Liking what he has seen lately, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz promoted him to the top-six forward corps for Saturday’s game in Los Angeles, putting him on a line alongside center Evgeny Kuznetsov and left wing Alex Ovechkin.
“He’s playing hockey, and I say that with all due respect,” Trotz said. “He’s not looking for the big hit. If it’s there, he’ll do that. I think earlier in his career, to stay in the lineup, he was looking for the big hit. He was looking for that forecheck and that physicality. I think he’s just playing, and if it’s there, then he responds to it and those situations. It’s just him maturing as a young pro.”
Wilson still leads Washington in hits with 194 entering Saturday, but he has tried to be more selective this season. That has helped him stay out of the penalty box — he’s on pace for the fewest penalty minutes of his career by a considerable margin — and in turn, he has been an effective penalty-killer all season. Trotz has occasionally moved Wilson up the lineup this year because his physicality can create space for his linemates.
Hitting can be a tricky balance because a player looks to do so when he doesn’t have possession. Wilson has been more strategic this season, utilizing hits to force turnovers.
“I haven’t changed my game a ton,” Wilson said. “I think most of it has been puck possession. When I have the puck on my stick, I’m making the right plays. I’m having more time with the puck and having more confidence. When I’m forechecking, I’m trying to go more stick-on-puck a little bit, but I’m still trying to finish my check.”
On Thursday night, the Capitals’ fourth line of Wilson, Daniel Winnik and center Jay Beagle was arguably the team’s best. Winnik scored the first goal of the game. Opposite Wilson was former teammate Joel Ward, whose style of play Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan has urged Wilson to emulate. The two were close as teammates and stay in touch, and while Wilson hasn’t reached the 20-goal offensive production Ward has had at points in his career, other aspects of his game model Ward’s.
“I think the parts of his game that they kind of want me to emulate are doable things,” Wilson said. “Winning battles along the wall, I think my board battles in the offensive end have improved a lot this year. That leads to puck possession, and that leads to more offense.”
When Ward was with Washington, he often moved around in the lineup, occasionally a right wing to complement Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Trotz is starting to use Wilson in a similar fashion. With the Capitals coming off back-to-back regulation losses for the first time since Dec. 1 and Trotz feeling like his forward groups have gone “stale,” Wilson was part of Trotz’s shake-up. His bruising presence can open up more ice for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, and he can serve as a net-front presence on that line.
He also has earned the increase in ice time.
“I think Tom’s played really well,” Trotz said. “You’ve got a shooter, you’ve got some big bodies, and you’ve got some pretty good skaters on that line.”
Capitals forward Tom Wilson has harnessed his physicality, earning praise from Coach Barry Trotz — and an increase in playing time.