Tom Wilson is Getting a Raw Deal

Photo: Chris Gordon

Yesterday Fedor shared a great story about how Tom Wilson is one of the most penalized rookies in the history of the NHL. Wilson has been of particular interest to me since the beginning of the season, when I worried about his OHL/NHL contract status, ruminated about how a rookie might distinguish himself in the NHL, and wondered aloud what his fourth line usage portended for his future. In raking in some of the most penalty minutes ever for a teenage rookie, Wilson kind of answered most of that, but I want to repeat Fedor’s closing:

Maybe other parts of Tom’s game will follow his record-breaking ability to get to the penalty box when he starts playing actual hockey.

That’s really important, I think. Because for all of his 133 PIMs, Wilson has played only 468 minutes total. That’s low even for a fourth liner. It seems at a glance that Wilson hasn’t had a lot of chances to prove himself this season, which may have been a factor in his choices to fight or make iffy hits. He’s gotta make an impression somehow, and he hasn’t been given a chance to do it the traditional way.

If you rank skaters by the quality of their teammates, Tom Wilson is second to last based on ice time and in the bottom 4 percent going by puck possession. Rookie or not, the way Adam Oates has deployed Tom Wilson makes him one the most disadvantaged skaters you’re gonna see. 

I went back three seasons and grabbed all rookie forwards who played at least 25 games. Then I ranked them by their points per game, their individual ice time, and the quality of the guys they played with (using data from Behind the Net and Extra Skater). There were 56 players who fit the criteria.

At the top of the list we find no surprises: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon. All first round picks. Then, at the very bottom– in pretty much every category—  is another first rounder: Tom Wilson.

To illustrate this,  I’ve picked out three players as examples. There’s a rookie star in RNH, a decent first-year in Sean Couturier, and then Tom Wilson, who is pulling up the rear. (If the numbers are too noisy, just jump to the charts below.)

Player Points / 60 TOI / 60 QoT (Possession) QoT (TOI)
Nugent-Hopkins  0.84 (1st)  17.6 (2nd)  2.3 (6th)  28.3% (4th)
Couturier  0.35 (30th)  14.1 (20th)  -1.7 (42nd)  21.8% (33rd)
Wilson  0.13 (51st)  7.2 (53rd)  -1.4 (41st)  18.0% (53rd)

QoT (Possession) uses Behind the Net’s Corsi Rel QoC, which ranks the average shot-attempt differential of the player’s linemates. QoT TOI uses ExtraSkater’s TotTm% F QoT, which measures the percentage of ice time played by the player’s fellow forwards. The numbers next to that are the player’s ranking out of the 56 rookie forwards in the sample.

Points Per Game


Wilson has two goals and six assists on the season. It behooves me to mention that his first goal came on a short shift on a power play with Alex Ovechkin. Wilson plays just 2% of Capitals power plays.

Time On Ice Per Game


Wilson gets seven minutes a game, which I guess is more than goon minutes. But not by much.

Quality of Teammates by Puck Possession


Wilson actually ranks ahead of Couturier’s rookie season here. I should point out that this is the puck possession level of teammates relative to the rest of the team, not the whole league. Think of the number more as a stack ranking of players on a single team rather than among all players on all teams.

Quality of Teammates by Ice Time


The Capitals do not use their fourth line much. Oates gives them pretty light duties against weaker competition, and he’s prone to shortening his bench– particularly when trailing in the score.

Now, there’s a meritocratic argument for ice time. It goes like this: a player who performs better than expected in a small role will get promoted by his coach to a bigger role. That role brings more ice time, better linemates, and– hopefully– better results.

But in Wilson’s case, I find it more likely that the tail is wagging the dog. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if he were played with good linemates and getting top-six minutes. The thought of that happening is like science fiction right now.

Wilson is on the extreme low end of every metric I pulled, but when he’s not playing with guys like Aaron Volpatti, he’s a positive possession player. I’m not saying Wilson could be RNH if his circumstances were better; I’m just saying I’d like to see him given a shot.

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  • Jaded

    It seems the only talent Oates cares to cultivate is Ovi’s.

  • Myan

    Great piece, Peter. I recall Oates once remarking that “we have to find Wilson more ice time” which of course is ironic because Oates could literally snap his fingers and Wilson could play 17:00 a night on the second line.

    I really think that Oates’ time on F Street is winding down.

  • GregV

    So basically: Tom Wilson doesn’t suck, his teammates suck? PS effective illustration.

  • I don’t think “his linemates suck” is fair. Volpatti is definitely not up to NHL snuff though.

  • Super43

    As we have seen with the handling of Marty Erat, and the insistence for nearly half the season to play the black hole of possession lines (20/21); Oates does whatever he wants regardless of stats. He seems to see something or rather does not see something to even give Tommy boy a shot.

  • GregV

    Okay, maybe “suck” is harsh, but it sounds like the point you’re making is that line pairings make a big difference in a rookie’s success.

  • Barrett

    But where do you stick Wilson in the lineup? He’s not taking the top line RW from Ovechkin or the 2nd line from Brouwer (although he probably should) and there’s no way you split the 3rd line wingers of Chimera and Ward. Him playing on the fourth line isn’t a problem.

  • I’ve been saying he needs a CHANCE off the fourth line, not a guaranteed spot in the top six.

  • Barrett

    Line mates and the team dynamic make a difference also. RNH wouldn’t play center on the Capitals top two lines over Backstrom and Grabovski. He gets playing time in Edmonton because they have no other viable options.

  • Jeff9⃣4⃣

    Wilson is a perfect example of why the NHL as a whole needs to get away from this whole “4th” line mentality. And, if they want to cultivate his talent as something other than a PIM guy, he needs to go back to Hershey and play top 6 minutes and role, unless you want to move Brouwer.

  • Barrett

    Me too, but then Troy Brouwer remembered how to play hockey. He’s just buried on the depth chart. I don’t mind the fourth line minutes, but they need to find players to complement him.

  • Topher Gee

    If he was asked to be the role of the enforcer for the team (remember when that use to be the only real problem) then he is doing his job. Penalty min. will keep him off of the ice. I wonder if Willy Baby is actually fighting for more time or if he is just being passive in his current role.

  • Totally a fair point.

  • Rob W.

    I feel bad for Wilson, it just seems like there is a whole lot of bad asset management with GMGM and Oates. In order for him to get at least 3rd line minutes next year who would have to go? Would it be totally unreasonable to start him in Hershey next year?

  • Topher Gee

    Another point, If they give him shifts off of the 4th line where does he go… Break up the Twins 25-42? step in directly for 21? or top line minutes!… I’m starting to think hes not showing up better in practice on top of those guys and his best role is the PIM enforcer.

  • Michael Worth

    his line mates are of 4th line quality……oh wait

  • Myan

    If we’re trying to do a semi-rebuild this summer, we could probably trade Brouwer for something good. We need to accept this is not our year to win the cup and focus on righting the ship for next season. I’d like to see us use these last 15 or so games to give our young guys NHL experience and support their development for the future.

  • JoeA

    What has Wilson do to demonstrate that he deserves better quality linemates? His backchecking does not look especially good, and his forechecking is even worse. It’s not like he’s making tape to tape passes that his linemates are missing on.
    He seems to run around the ice try try to lay big hits on people regardless if the situation is warranted. He has the decision making skills of a nineteen year old.

    He may very well have the talent to be a top 6 guy, but he certainly hasn’t demonstrated that he can be trusted with those extra minutes.

  • Harjot Singh

    dont worry guys he will be playing with Kuzya on the fourth line!

  • yv

    As in trailing close games, Caps now in the very hot situation of making playoffs, which automatically means no much time for experiments and trying. Looks like Wilson and Caps will ride on the season as it is and then AHL option will help to find out more about his abilities. And hopefully Kuz will be not in the same situation.

  • Crosscheck7

    Tom Wilson has always respected the game in every way I see possible. A perfect example was the other night in Philly when he was going to drop them with Schen. He could have destroyed him at first but when he noticed Schen was caught up in a skate, he didn’t throw one punch, waited and gave the kid his shot at payback for the so called dirty hit on his brother. Look at the same altercation and Simmons decides to grab erskine and handicap him while he is already engaged with vinny. Simmons had his man and decided to join in another altercation that led to erskine getting injured. Wilson will come into his own very soon but as a caps fan for the last 30 years it is great to know that there is someone on the bench to keep things even. Yes, we sure do need some points from him, but he is by no means a dirty hockey goon. I know people around the league respect him, maybe not fear him, but they know it will be a fair fight. I learned a great deal from watching shanahan explain exactly why the hit on Schen was legal. He explained it perfectly from his change to his jumping into that spot on the ice and why he was there based on where the puck was. Don’t agree with shanahan on a lot, but he gets it right more than not and the video presentations as to why the player was or was not suspended are great. Orlovs hit the other night on the other hand, not good, deserved every bit of the 2 games and I think he knows it. Just my thoughts, not criticizing anyone, just my take.

  • Myan

    I completely agree. He may be one of the most penalized rookies ever but he isn’t a dirty player.

  • MuzzMuzzington

    I think Oates doesn’t know how to use certain guys. Plus this whole dumbfounding dyslexia of his with players must play the side they shoot. I think he gets too much credit for the resurgence of Ovechkin. Why haven’t any other players broken out under his tutelage?

    Because he is a great power play coach, but seems to be very lacking in terms of development and designing a system around the players. He seems so focused on bending and molding players into his system of take no shots, pretend the opponent’s shots are low quality, get hemmed in your own zone, let opponent take high quality chances all game. Don’t panic, never ever call a time out, even when your team is playing atrociously bad and needs a kick in the ass to get going.

    I’m glad Wilson seems to have a good attitude because he is not set up to succeed right now. Could have became a sour puss like Erat because he has been seriously mismanaged, but he has remained quiet and played the role he is asked to play.

  • snwmnhntr

    Every player on this team has played on multiple lines and multiple positions this season except Wilson. Volpati even saw different lines. This is all Oates playing mind games. Despite being labeled as a players coach, guys dont play hard for him, havent embraced his system and an absurd amount of players have demanded out of his clutches.

  • Matt Lauer

    The poor deployment of Erat, the thick miasma of mystery that surrounds the Caps’ defensive scheme, and the misdeployment of Wilson are Oates’ three fundamental errors, in my mind.

  • JH

    If I were Tom Wilson I’d be kinda pissed at you for whining on his behalf (it’s a fine whine, but still), because he strikes me as a good soldier who isn’t bothered by this and probably embarrassed we’re talking about it.

    Anyway…the question that you do not answer – and that must be answered – is, whose spot would he take? He’s a 19 year old rookie and there are lots of highly paid, more proven guys on the top two lines. You’re going to put Brouwer on the 4th line?

    Sure, I’d love to see him get minutes on the top six – maybe he would blossom with more ice time there. But I don’t see how one can justify it this year. For this year, the team needs physicality on the 4th line and he brings that. In past years we lacked grit – especially when we got to playoff time. We have arguably more grit now. And, we’ve been remarkably (knock wood) free from major injury. In another season, maybe Wilson’s spot would’ve opened up.

    Sometimes the cards just don’t stack in your favor – and this is that kind of year for him. He’s not going to be stuck on the 4th line forever. He’s 19 for Pete’s sake, and he’s playing in the NHL. Caps and Oates have had way bigger issues to worry about.

  • Eric

    i think his contract doesn’t allow for him to go to Hershey he came over from the OHL

  • I think I’ve addressed this elsewhere, but I’ll do it again.

    I’m not arguing for a shakeup in the lines. I’m pointing out that Wilson hasn’t had a chance to succeed. I’m defining a problem, not recommending a solution.

    I have at times said I’d like to see him given a couple shifts in the top six. I don’t think that would mandate someone’s spot being taken permanently.

    Finally, and this was talked about before, but it is a big deal to have your first round draft pick burn a year of his ELC to toil on the fourth line, hurting the performances of the upper lines, and increasing the chances of a valuable asset of washing out of the league altogether.

    Sure, Oates and GMGM have bigger things to worry about, but they’re big boys and should be capable of balancing priorities.

  • Owen Johnson

    I agree. I feel that talent wise we are a d-man and a top-6 forward from being at least an above average team. There’s no excuse for us to be this bad. I suspect if the Caps get off to a slow start next season, Oates will be fired.

  • Marky Narc

    I said this way back when Peter did the “Sideshow Tom” video: stick him on the 2PP unit and tell him “hey, no fighting.” It’s an experiment we can do right now.

    Wilson’s rookie season reminds me a lot Joe Thornton’s 97-98 rookie season with the Boston Bruins. There was similar ‘controversy’ over whether Thornton should go back to Sault Ste. Marie, but then-coach Pat Burns decided to keep him on the Bs roster for the entire season. Joe played fourth line minutes all season (about 8 per game), and finished the campaign with 3G-4A-7P. I was living in Boston at the time, and I remember the fans and media really hammered the management and coaching staff for under-utilizing and “wasting” Joe by having him play on a line with Ken Baumgartner and Jean-Yves Roy. Thornton’s ice time in his second season pretty much doubled and his production jumped exponentially.

    I’m not saying these two are comparable talent-wise – that is highly doubtful – but I tell the above story in hopes that others will take a tiny step back and look at the longer view here. He’s not the first rookie to spend his first season mired on the fourth line with marginal linemates. In no way does this season mean that he’s a bust or that his development as a player is irreparably damaged. His deployment and utilization next season, on the other hand, will likely have a much greater influence on what type of NHLer he develops into.

  • Owen Johnson

    I think you’re giving Oates too much credit.

  • Owen Johnson

    I think you’re confusing dyslexia with OCD (or the “OC Disorder”)
    But other than that, agree.

  • Myan

    Totally agree. We should have traded for a defenseman on Wednesday but we didn’t. I hate to be “That Girl” here but I hope that we don’t make the playoffs and instead focus on restructuring this team for next season. It’s painfully clear that we are not a legitmate cup-contending team right now. Making the playoffs after this abysmal season would only mask the real problems we have and play into Oates & GMGM’s narrative that everything is fine.

  • CapRat

    The deployment of Penner next to Beagle and Brouwer instead of on the first line where he belongs is becoming the fourth.

  • Owen Johnson

    But we DID trade for a defenseman.
    OHHH!!! You mean trade for a defenseman and KEEP him? lololololol! Why did you think we’d do THAT?

  • Chris Cerullo

    RNH plays 2nd line center on my team every single day over Grabo. And I’m a huge Grabo fan.

  • CapsKel

    The problem is that there are a lot of other guys in the same position on other teams… Who don’t do massively reckless, boneheaded things.

  • CapsKel

    Uh, if he’d destroyed Schenn while Schenn was tangled up, he would have been suspended. That’s not “respecting the game,” that’s “not getting your ass suspended for attacking a down player.” He still created that entire situation unnecessarily.

  • Jonah

    its not the contract but part of the new CBO. OHL didn’t want NHL poaching their talent unless they were going to the big show.

  • Freedoooom

    I’m trying to remember any of flashes from him besides the Islanders game, which was something like 45 games ago?

    He showed a lot of promise during the first couple preseason games, forechecking to score, but then there on after he was invisible and has been invisible pretty much every other game.

  • VirginiaPatriot

    Please, some of us are more comfortable with CDO.

  • VirginiaPatriot

    Does anyone else wonder about Blaine Forsythe’s role in all of this? I mean, Blaine may be a brilliant X&Os guy. The last on-ice experience this guy had was in junior hockey in the CJHL. With Oates coaching in a cerebral manner and Blaine providing the X&Os, where is the heart and soul of bench coaching that the best of the best bring to their teams? “FInd more ice time” for Wilson? GUT INSTINCT, Coach. The numbers provide the framework, the heart and soul provide the difference between mediocre and champions.

  • thelebaron

    kuzya will be our new defenseman, going by oates logic

  • Roy Schue

    Didn’t realize standing up for your teammates was unnecessary???

  • CapsKel

    There’s a way to stand up for your teammates without escalating the situation or hurting your team. When do you ever buy that excuse when the Flyers or Bruins pummel someone in retaliation? That whole thing spiraled out of control because Wilson couldn’t keep his cool, wait a couple of shifts, and go drop gloves with Schenn if he still felt strongly about it. Instead, it turned into a near line brawl.

  • oryp

    Don’t forget the time he started Grubauer for 2 months.

  • Roy Schue

    That was the perfect time to do it. Early in the game, no score…show flyers your not gonna take there crap. Plus we got under there skin enough to get a power play out of it

  • CapsKel

    LOL, yeah, that turned out soooo great for the Caps.

  • Roy Schue

    Yeah we didn’t win the game. That’s obvious. We weren’t talking about that. We were talking about that play and that play had nothing to do with the outcome of the game

  • Roy Schue

    And how exactly did that play hurt us. We lost Erskin. Wow what a loss he shouldn’t be playing any way. The flyers lost lecavalier. That should have hurt them a lot worse.

  • CapsKel

    Uh, attempting to out-Flyer the Flyers is always a loss. You can make as many excuses as you want, but I don’t stand for that B.S.