TORONTO — Armed with a new six-year, $31 million contract, Tom Wilson is headed into this season looking to find the line between playing physical and landing in the box — or worse, suspended.
The 24-year-old Toronto native finished the regular season second in the NHL with 187 penalty minutes, behind only Florida’s Michael Haley (212 minutes).
Wilson was fourth in playoff penalty minutes with 31 while helping the Capitals win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, but was handed a three-game suspension during the second round series against the Penguins for his hit on Zach Aston-Reese breaking the forward’s jaw and leaving him with a concussion.
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“I don’t want to be in the stands. My team doesn’t want me in the stands,” Wilson said Tuesday at the annual BioSteel Camp. “I’ve got to make sure I’m on the ice, not in the box, playing as much as I can. The game is definitely moving in a direction. … I’ve got to be the unique player, which is why they gave me that contract, but I can’t cross the line where I’m spending time in the box or in the stands.”
The hit Wilson was suspended for wasn’t his only questionable offense during the playoffs.
He was penalized for charging Alexander Wennberg during Game 1 the Capitals first-round series against the Blue Jackets, but escaped supplemental discipline.
Wilson also avoided suspension for his hit on Penguins defenceman Brian Dumoulin in Game 2 of the series against Pittsburgh.
“I’ve always kind of had a pride in my physical play. A lot of guys that I play against and play with know I’m not the kind of guy to go out there and try and hurt guys. I just try to play hard and honest,” Wilson said. “I’m not going to take that out of my game, but I definitely have to continue to adapt, work with the department and see … it’s kind of a two-way street. I want the game to be (in) a better place. I want the game to be safe, too, but no one wants to see hitting taken out of the game because it’s such a unique part of our sport and what makes hockey so great.”
The 6-4, 218-pound forward was also suspended twice during the 2017 preseason.
He missed two games for his hit on Robert Thomas of the Blues on Sept. 22. Then, in the preseason finale, during another meeting with the Blues, Wilson received a major penalty and a game misconduct for his hit on Sam Blais. The Department of Player Safety suspended Wilson for the first four games of the regular season.
In an effort to better understand where the line is and, which of his hits are bordering penalties, fines or suspension, Wilson says he’s had dialogue with George Parros, head of the Department of Player Safety.
“There were a couple instances (last season) where they reached out and it’s good for me to know what they’re seeing from my game,” Wilson said. “It’s good for them to know what I’m seeing when I’m on the ice. It can be a beneficial factor for both parties to learn from each other.”
When the league calls in reference to supplemental discipline, the conversation revolves around the specific hit or play in question and nothing further. As a result, Wilson and Parros have spoken on separate occasions so that Wilson can learn and gather information.
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“I want to be on the ice so I need to know what they’re looking for and I need to know what’s in the rules and what’s not,” Wilson continued. “It’s something that I’m trying to work with. You’ve just got to make sure you’re finishing every check clean, playing within the rules. It’s a hard-hitting, fast sport, stuff’s going to happen, but you’ve got to be in control and make sure you’re doing the right thing.”
While trying to find the line between what’s legal and what will result in supplemental discipline Wilson also knows it’s his physical play that both landed him on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov and earned him his new contract, which carries an annual average value of $5.16 million through the 2023-24 season.
“You need to be hard to play against,” he said. “There’s an element for the way the game is moving to be fast and skilled, but it’s still a hard-hitting physical sport and you’ve got to be tough to play against.
“If your first line is going to have the sandpaper or whatever, there’s going to be third or fourth lines that can play against that line nowadays. You need to have that element or it’s just not going to work.”
Wilson began playing with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov part way through last season and admitted there was a learning curve to skating alongside the Russian forwards.
“You definitely get more comfortable with them. The first little bit, they’re taking in Russian and you get more comfortable going up to them and asking, ‘What’s going on? What are we doing?’ It’s a funny element from that perspective,” Wilson chuckled.
As he heads into his sixth NHL season, Wilson has a better idea of how to be successful on Washington’s top line.
“For me, it’s they’re doing good things when the puck is in their hands, so its good for me to go get it and get it to Kuzy or Ovi and let them do the rest,” he said.
“If you ask Kuzy, he’d rather have me go get him the puck so he can do things with it. If he’s going to get the puck, then arguably he’s taking two hits and he’s not coming out with as much energy, as much poise. You’ve got to find a balance. Every GM and coach has their own style, but it seemed to have worked for us last year.”
If the Caps are to be successful and defend the Cup, they’ll need Wilson on the ice teetering on the right side of the line and earning his money.