Tom Wilson has put the NHL in a bad spot, and they don’t like it.
The front office of the league has been faced with a big challenge over the past couple decades. They’ve had to find ways to clean up some of the game’s more dangerous aspects (concerns over both player health and lawsuits are real) while keeping its physicality, which is undeniably one of hockey's more magnetic qualities.
Last season’s Battle of Alberta flare-ups were a reminder of how inter-personal dramas draw eyeballs and attention.
When you zoom out, the NHL has done a good job pushing for that balance. We see far fewer blindside hits these days, fighting has declined consistently over that span, and young speed and skill players can survive in a league that never would have stood for anyone Svechnikov-ing the puck into the net back when every fourth line was populated by bouncers on skates.
This is where the league is in a tough spot. While they do want the speed and skill and safety to tick up, they don’t want to lose the fireworks entirely, and so striking that balance is nearly impossible. Aiming to “keep the fireworks” explicitly probably isn’t a great look either. And so what Wilson has done, and continues to do, is shine a 1,000 watt halogen floodlight on that awkward grey area between the desire for both increased safety and interpersonal fireworks that the NHL would surely like to keep in the shadows.
I’m of the belief Wilson’s going to eventually pay for that.
The way the NHL evaluates suspensions has been discussed a lot over the past day or so, but a reminder: they identify whether a standalone incident is suspendable before taking into account who the perpetrator was. That means that if the Wilson/Panarin interaction was Panarin throwing down (pick a name) Conor Sheary, would Panarin get suspended for it?
I’m not here to quibble over how you personally parsed the Zapruder-style slo-mo of Wilson/Panarin (which combined with the Capitals “violence” tweet has done these conversations no favours). But I am here to tell you the NHL has decided that, after watching it in real time and at game speed enough times, they see two guys wrestling after a whistle (one of whom happens to be extremely strong and who also may have a whiff of Lennie from Of Mice and Men to his comportment) and wouldn’t have suspended other players for that event. That makes Wilson’s past history irrelevant. If you take issue with that part, we’re on to a totally different conversation.
So here the league sits, having to rather uncomfortably admit that they endorse some measure of these physical altercations because of the actions of Tom Wilson, who’s officially a player at a crossroads.
He can clean it up or move from the crossroads to the crosshairs.
There are two directions offered to the big winger now. One is that he can consciously make a real change (which is like fixing your grip in golf, super hard but often necessary), and try and emulate what seems to be happening with Brad Marchand in Boston. Marchand was a serial offender who was disciplined by the league numerous times, but now has seemingly switched his focus to actual hockey somewhere along the way. Nobody’s going to make the case Marchand’s become Mother Theresa on skates, but after suspensions in four straight years from 2015-18, he’s more than three years removed from league discipline, is miles above a point-per-game over that time, and has picked up Hart Trophy votes along the way.
Nobody’s asking Wilson to be Mother Theresa either, but if he could stop putting his colleagues in the hospital that’d be preferred.
The other choice is he can be Raffi Torres, who also pushed the league to the brink, brought the conversation all the way to “what the hell is the league going to do about this guy,” then crossed the line one last time and essentially got himself suspended out of the league. Torres was suspended for 41 games in October of 2015, got fined nearly half a million dollars, and after some AHL time and one more tryout he couldn’t get an NHL job and announced his retirement a year later.
One thing I expect to come from all this is some accountability for the teams who enable players like Wilson. After Matt Cooke was suspended some five times in a three-year span -- with his last suspension costing the Penguins 17 games of his otherwise useful play -- the team took it into their own hands and addressed him directly. The story at the time was that Mario Lemieux, Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma basically explained it was time to clean it up or be gone. Cooke ended up with a Masterton Trophy nomination the following year, posting a career low in PIMs-per-game and a career high in goals with 19.
It was around that time that Lemieux was suggesting to the NHL that team fines accompany player discipline, with escalating numbers (as the players see escalating games) that could rise as high as a million dollars. Just a hunch here, but I’m guessing post-pandemic that a number of owners would be wary of employing the types of players who could cost them dollar amounts so significant.
I can’t think of a better deterrent for players who like to “play on the edge” than making employment tougher to come by. Half the reason guys put on that edge in the first place is because they believe it makes them more employable.
Right now the Washington Capitals play Wilson 17 minutes a night, they defend his actions at every turn and at times this season he has worn a letter as a team captain. That’s tough to square with the guy who’s injured multiple opponents this year and who stood preening in the penalty box after his latest infraction. The league certainly sees the way the Caps have handled Wilson as enabling, and they’re not wrong. Were teams to become more accountable for their players it would be to the benefit of both the players and the NHL.
The great drama ahead is whether Wilson saw his non-suspension as an endorsement of his playing style, or as narrowly getting away with one. If it’s the former, and he commits another borderline act, I think he’s got a Torres number coming. If he’s wise enough to wipe the sweat from his brow, pay his piddly $5,000 fine and focus on hockey, the Caps may have a good player they can keep in their lineup.
Earlier I mentioned how Matt Cooke had a great season after his organization confronted him and his playing style, and how that’s an option for Wilson, too. I did leave out, though, that three years later Cooke kneed Tyson Barrie and got suspended for seven games. The point here is that while I think a solid jerk of the chain from the Capitals could rein Wilson in for a while here, it’s likely only a matter of time before we’re back having this conversation about him again, only the question won’t be about if he should be suspended, but for how long.