Saturday, December 4News That Matters

Tom Wilson Is Hockey’s Chief Villain. Or Is He?

“We’re all sitting on the bench looking at each other like, ‘Who is this kid?’ We were just so excited that he was on our side and not the other.”

Matt Mahalak, goalie

The O.H.L. is a top major junior league, but few of its players, if any, matched Wilson’s combination of size, strength and skill. Superb on the forecheck, he intuitively understood how a play would unfold, enabling him to reach the puck before the defenseman.

“They’d almost get like a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look and see this big body coming at them,” said Brian Sommariva, who was Plymouth’s assistant general manager at the time. “He was taking the exact same route they were taking. Next thing you know, there’s a large collision and a turnover.”

Wilson relished those large collisions, though one in particular — a clean hit, Sommariva said, that knocked out a smaller player — left him visibly shaken. On the Plymouth team, players scratched for games were assigned to track statistics, including hits, earned when a player separated an opponent from the puck or checked him out of the play altogether. Invariably, Wilson rated near the top.

But coaches, sensing he could score goals and set them up, demanded more. The Capitals, who drafted him No. 16 overall in 2012 to add some skilled thump to their lineup, wanted that, too.

So in Plymouth, Wilson devoted extra practice to stickhandling, skating and redirecting shots, trying to emulate the Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom. His production soared, his penalty minutes dropped, and he logged time on the Whalers’ power-play unit. When a fight broke out, Plymouth’s coach, Mike Vellucci, admonished Wilson for getting involved: He was too important to lose to injury or suspension.

His time in Plymouth ended with a postseason scoring binge in 2013 — 17 points (and 41 penalty minutes) in 12 games. After barely a week in the minors, Wilson joined the Capitals for Game 5 of their conference quarterfinal matchup against the Rangers. They knew that, at 19, Wilson could mesh on their fourth line, and he did. He clicked even better with his new team.