What We Learned: Assessing Tom Wilson's true impact

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5696/" data-ylk="slk:Tom Wilson">Tom Wilson</a> brings what to the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/was" data-ylk="slk:Washington Capitals">Washington Capitals</a>, exactly? (Getty)
Tom Wilson brings what to the Washington Capitals, exactly? (Getty)

The second the Capitals gave up the empty-net goal in Game 4, I knew I was going to have to write about something that I have been studiously avoiding writing about for months: The concept of player value as it relates to Tom Wilson.

The talk around Wilson has always been a little ridiculous because he himself is a ridiculous player. He’s a first-round pick who set a career high in points this season — just 35 — who has been in the league for five seasons and is far better known for his numerous illegal runs at opponents than for anything he may or may not do to help the Capitals win.

Talk to most fans around the league and they dismiss Wilson as a cheap-shot artist who can’t score that effectively, and understandably so. Talk to Capitals fans and they hail Wilson as a bonafide No. 1 right wing who may not score a lot himself, but provides value to the Capitals in the form of the “space” he creates for Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The latter is something that — in the mind of Caps fans, personnel (on or off the ice), and attendant media — few if any other players could provide. The idea is, however, ludicrous on its face.

To those outside the Beltway, though, he’s a scourge on the game who totally sucks and only gets a hyped-up Shawn Thornton treatment from dumbasses who really ought to know better.

The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

Even leaving aside the fact that the Capitals have at least one better right wing than Wilson (TJ Oshie) and another (Brett Connolly) who would likely be as good or better if given the chance, we must think about Wilson in the context of his role as a “first-line player,” which is something Wilson’s defenders have called him repeatedly in the past few days.

He is not one. He is more accurately described a middle-six forward who has been thrust into a bigger role because Barry Trotz is trying to spread the offense across the first two lines more evenly. A lot is made of the fact that Wilson finished with 32 points at 5-on-5 this season, because that was fourth on the Capitals behind only Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Nick Backstrom. But look at the guys who had that many 5-on-5 points this year: Alex DeBrincat, Dustin Brown, Gabe Landeskog, Gus Nyquist, Josh Bailey, Kevin Fiala, and Vince Trocheck. These are guys for whom a pretty reasonable evaluation is “They’re mostly pretty good,” but not much more than that, and with the exception of Landeskog and Brown, none of them played with guys who, like Ovechkin, were legit MVP candidates.

The obvious counterargument to the “Wilson is a first-liner” take is simple: If you play with two guys who clear 80 points, one of whom wins the Rocket Richard, you’d have to try not to get 32 points at 5-on-5. Of Wilson’s 32 points at full strength, nine were secondary assists. That’s tied with Ovechkin’s total, and two ahead of Kuznetsov, and both of them scored significantly more points than Wilson did at 5-on-5, proportionally.

And oh, well, “He didn’t play with those guys all year.” That’s true. We’ll get to that in a second.

Let’s put it another way: It says a lot about a supposed first-line forward if he gets fewer than five minutes of power play time in 78 games during the regular season. Specifically, it says he’s not a first-line forward. In theory, the counterargument to this is that Wilson’s value comes not from his ability to generate looks or convert chances, but to clear space, and you don’t need to clear space on the power play because the other team doesn’t have one of its guys on the ice the whole time.

(I’m not even going to address the “Look at his point total in these playoffs! He clearly raises his game!” arguments because here’s the easy answer: Ville Leino.)

The other “Wilson is actually good” argument you see a lot are his WOWYs; he appears to make almost every Capitals forward better in terms of shot share. Well, based on Wilson’s own peripheral numbers, you can see he gets a relatively easy ride from Trotz. Among Caps forwards, only Jakub Vrana got a higher offensive zone start percentage than Wilson, and his quality of competition was really only high (third on the team) because he rode shotgun with Backstrom (first) and Ovechkin (second) all year.

So let’s talk about Wilson’s impact on scoring for the Caps’ centerpieces of their top two lines: Ovechkin and Backstrom.

This season, he played 64 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with Ovechkin, but also figured into or was on the ice for 17 of his 32 points in those situations. Nick Backstrom was there for the other 15. So clearly, they’re putting Wilson with guys who have shown they can generate offense themselves, regardless of his presence, and he’s not necessarily slowing them down too much. Ovechkin’s lines scored 3.03 goals per 60 minutes with Wilson, and 3.91 without. For Backstrom, there’s a marginal advantage of 2.89 per hour with Wilson versus 2.74 without.

This is also sort of borne out by scoring chances and all that, so that’s likewise a non-starter as an argument. Ovechkin is roughly as good with or without Wilson, Backstrom is a little bit worse with him.

It further stands to reason, however, that these guys tend to have better numbers in terms of getting off attempts with Wilson because they start so many more of their shifts in the offensive zone, as a means of shielding Wilson from defensive responsibility.

When he played with neither of those guys at 5-on-5, which he did for just 336:22, his numbers stink. Just 48.6 percent of attempts, 47.4 percent of shots on goal, 47.1 percent of scoring chances, 47.5 percent of high-danger chances. Pretty interesting that when he’s apart from two players who at least border on “elite” status, he starts getting run over by lesser competition.

And what about the fact that Wilson is a key penalty killer for the Capitals? He’s firmly on their second unit (third in PK ice time). And the numbers bear out that he’s pretty good at it! That gives him a pretty clear value to the team, but it doesn’t make him a first-line forward or, really, anything close.

This is a player who, we can say, isn’t really that impactful at 5-on-5 then, despite all the affirmations that he is from Hockey Men. Which is really what this is all about.

Hockey Men say a player of Wilson’s type is valuable in “ways that aren’t always going to show up on the score sheet.” But, y’know, shouldn’t they? If Wilson is creating so much more space for Ovechkin, shouldn’t that show up in something other than his corsi-for percentage? Shouldn’t Ovechkin score more with Wilson than without? I mean, the obvious answer to these questions is “yes,” if you’re a Wilson fanboy.

When you get into the weeds on the argument, they just aren’t borne out. Corsica’s WAR stat, which looks at player quality across all areas of usage, shows Wilson to be marginally effective in terms of overall shot generation, but that he takes way too many penalties (surprise!) and almost totally wipes out the value he provides offensively with the own-zone problems he causes. I don’t know if anyone should be surprised by this.

But then it becomes an issue of “intangibles” and you’re never going to win that argument with the kind of people who would say, “Watch the games” to you.

I probably watched about 20 or so Caps games in the regular season and the vast majority of their playoff games. That’s not the full 82-plus that Caps fans watch, but at what point does someone who watched 40, 60, 80 instead of 20 stop gleaning exponentially more knowledge about the team, especially if they come in with admitted biases about that team in particular? I don’t know that some random-ass game against the Hurricanes on a Tuesday in February would unlock some secret vault of understanding re: Wilson’s quality of which I was hitherto unaware.

None of this, by the way, is to say Wilson isn’t useful in his way. Again, he kills penalties pretty effectively (albeit mostly against second units) and would probably continue to be fairly effective if used alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom. But then again, who wouldn’t be? How many right wings around the league — leaving aside Devante Smith-Pelly, who is a clear fourth-line guy, and whatever other non-Oshie right wings the team currently employs — could you drop onto either one of those lines and have them be as good or better than Wilson? The answer might legitimately be in the high double digits. A lot of those guys might even be able to crack Washington’s second power play unit. You never know!

The point of all this is that everyone in the Capitals’ orbit is basically saying “If Washington loses this series, it’s because they didn’t have Tom Wilson for Games 4 through 6.”

But if your big hopes hinge on a guy who, statistically, maybe-kinda-sorta helps a guy who’s already one of the best players in the universe, you didn’t have much of a hope at all.

What We Learned: Playoff edition

Boston Bruins: The derangement in the national hockey media is really stunning sometimes. Brad Marchand licks two guys in the playoffs and people are screaming, “This is disgusting! That’s not hockey! He should be suspended for it!” (And don’t get me wrong, I think it’s stupid and weird, but I’m not horrified by the impropriety.) Meanwhile they look at Marchand low-bridge someone, or Tom Wilson pick someone’s head twice, or any number of suspendable infractions and they say, “Well look, that’s just hockey.” And so my thing is, like, “What are we really talking about in this sport if licking someone to annoy them is so far beyond the pale as to make the collective hockey media drop their monocles in their martini glasses, but they’ll all swear up and down that Wilson got over-suspended despite his history?” We’re talking about proportionality, right? If you think licking someone deserves the same suspension Evander Kane got for cross-checking Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in the head, I honestly don’t know what to tell you.

Nashville Predators: Honestly I don’t know where they go from here. They’re having the problems everyone thought they might have with the Jets once we all got a good look at their play in the Colorado series. The Jets have two, three lines that can score like Colorado’s top line, and boy the Predators just don’t seem to be able to handle it. Maybe the wheels just fell off for Pekka Rinne after a phenomenal season (and hell, he was very good until the Cup Final in last year’s playoffs too). I know PK Subban guaranteed a win for tonight’s game and I hope that’s true just because I want the full seven from these two teams, but jeez, this ain’t going well.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins probably aren’t going to go quietly in this series, just because they rarely do in these types of situations. I mean, how often does this Capitals team keep the Crosby line from scoring? More to the point, how often does the Crosby line get as badly beaten in attempts (21-7!) as it did on Saturday? Maybe at some point you say, “Well hey look, all these bargain basement wingers can’t get you wins every time out,” but also they put 39 shots on Braden Holtby and just didn’t win, so that happens sometimes too. I don’t know if anything would surprise me about this series anymore.

San Jose Sharks: It is becoming increasingly apparent that if you can’t play fast hockey against Vegas you’re gonna die quickly and San Jose couldn’t play fast. Even in the games they won in this series, “fast” wasn’t really how they did it so much as “score on the power play.” That didn’t work for the Bruins, either, did it? This is going to be controversial but if you’re only scoring special teams goals, well, you’re not winning a lot of games against anyone in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Lightning: You can talk an awful lot about how the Bruins couldn’t score at 5-on-5 in this series but you can also put it the other way and say “Tampa dominated after Game 1 to a ludicrous extent.” They outscored Boston 15-7 in their wins, allowed just two goals at full strength, and trailed for about 18 minutes. That’s just out-and-out dominance and the Bruins had no answer. Now they await the winner of Caps/Pens, and if they made Boston look this bad? Hoo boy.

Vegas Golden Knights: I think I’m just going to marvel at how Marc-Andre Fleury has given up just eight goals on 239 shots at 5-on-5 in these playoffs. Now sure, seven of those were against San Jose, but if you’re only giving up seven 5-on-5 goals in six games, and all of them are clustered in three games in the series, that’s pretty good. I don’t know how sustainable it is, but it’s certainly an incredible feat. This has to be the best 10-game stretch of Fleury’s career.

Washington Capitals: Hey so remember when brain genius Barry Trotz thought this team had a goaltending controversy? Braden Holtby didn’t start either of the first two games in the playoffs (and look at that, the Caps didn’t win either of them), but he’s really only had two bad games. And the Caps still won one of those. He’s .924 in the playoffs and that sounds just about right I guess, since his career average save percentage before 2017-18 was .922. Holtby didn’t have a good season, but he’s a damn good goalie.

Winnipeg Jets: If they can get Kyle Connor going for the rest of these playoffs, man, look out. He didn’t have a goal in this team’s first nine playoff games. On Saturday he scored twice on six shots and had the truly amazing assist (see below) to basically power the Jets by himself to a four-goal margin. If three lines are scoring for these guys, I don’t know how anyone stops them. They gotta be the Cup favorite at this point, because they’re making even the mighty predators look pretty damn bad.

Play of the weekend

Oh yeah here’s that Connor assist. Thanks.

Gold Star Award

Connor Hellebuyck up to .925 in this postseason. Few will discuss this!!!

Minus of the Weekend

There should always be an afternoon game on weekends in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Don’t make me wait until Saturday night!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

I actually got this one in my email yesterday and it’s too good not to share:

“Hy Rick,

Would you consider a trade like Edmontons first round pick this year and Adam Larsson for San Benett and Dougie Hamilton?”

Please do not take this as an invitation to email me trade proposals.

Signoff

Of course.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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