Capitals' Tom Wilson suspended 20 games by NHL for blindside hit
Washington winger will also forfeit $1.26M US for illegal check on St. Louis Blues centre Oskar Sundqvist
Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson was banned 20 games by the NHL on Wednesday for a blindside hit to the head of an opponent during a pre-season game, the latest and most severe punishment in what the league called an "unprecedented" series of suspensions for the physical player.
"I was pretty surprised. I think it's unfortunate for Tom that the league is making an example out of him," Washington forward T.J. Oshie said. "They set the standards; they want to get the dirty stuff out of the game."
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It was announced just hours before the reigning Stanley Cup champion Capitals opened their title defence by beating the visiting Boston Bruins 7-0. Wilson did not play, but he was introduced along with his teammates during the pre-game banner-raising ceremony and skated onto the ice in uniform.
Wilson, a member of Washington's top line with captain Alex Ovechkin, was ejected for the hit on St. Louis Blues centre Oskar Sundqvist in the second period of the teams' exhibition game on Sunday.
"Everybody probably knows how we feel about it in our room. It's a tough thing, since we don't agree with it, but it was tough for Tom," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. "I think the biggest thing is we've got to support him through this. It's unfair and tough for a good player like that. He's obviously a huge part of our team."
The video released to explain the punishment says: "Wilson delivers a high, forceful hit, which makes Sundqvist's head the main point of contact on a hit where such head contact was avoidable and causes an injury." It also admonishes him for taking "a poor angle of approach." Blues coach Mike Yeo called the hit "predatory."
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Wilson's suspension, which Capitals coach Todd Reirden said he expects to be appealed, is the longest handed down by the league since Raffi Torres of the San Jose Sharks was banned a record 41 games in 2015, also for a pre-season hit.
The league noted that Wilson "is considered a repeat offender" — and, indeed, this is hardly the first time the sixth-year player has been in trouble for the way he has taken out an opponent.
"In short, including pre-season and post-season games played, this is Wilson's fourth suspension in his last 105 games, an unprecedented frequency of suspensions in the history of the Department of Player Safety," the NHL video says.
The Capitals see Wilson as a vital part of the franchise, and general manager Brian MacLellan signed him to a $31 million US, six-year contract this off-season.
Wilson knows the game is changing
During a conference call with reporters in July to discuss his new deal, Wilson spoke about how he needed to adjust his playing style.
"It would be stubborn on my part not to admit that the game is changing. There is definitely an eye on that part, the physical part of the game, in the NHL right now. I want to be contributing. I want to be a part of the success of the group. If I'm not going to adapt and change with the times, I'm not going to be able to do that. I want to be on the ice and not in the box or not in the stands," Wilson said at the time.
"That physical part of my game is always going to be there. That's the nature of who I am. That's how I play the game. I'm not going to let anyone take that away from me," he added. "But I have to be smart about it. You've got to play within the rules."
Wilson doubled his career high with 14 goals and set a new mark with 35 points last season, when he was the only NHL forward with 30-plus points and 90-plus penalty minutes, finishing with 187 and a league-high 41 minors. Then he contributed 15 points in 21 games during Washington's run to its first championship.
"There are certain ways they are calling things. You need to be aware of how they're making their calls on suspensions. He's a big, strong guy who skates really well. There is a lot of force behind his contact," MacLellan said Tuesday, the day before the suspension was issued. "He needs to be aware of how they're determining what's legal and what's illegal from the league's standpoint."