Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson will miss the first 20 games of the regular season after the NHL suspended him Wednesday for the fourth time in little more than a calendar year.
The Capitals will be without their top-line right winger for what amounts to a quarter of the season. He’ll be eligible to return Nov. 21 for a home game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Wilson can choose to appeal the decision.
The oft-maligned forward was hit with a match penalty in the Capitals’ preseason finale Sunday against the St. Louis Blues for checking Oskar Sundqvist in the head. Blues coach Mike Yeo later said the hit left Sundqvist with multiple upper-body injuries, and he has since been placed on injured reserve.
The league determined that Sundqvist’s head was the main point of contact on the play.
“It is also important to note that the head contact on this play is avoidable,” a video from the Department of Safety said. “Sundqvist does not materially change the position of his head or body just prior to or simultaneous with contact in a way that significantly contributes to the head being the main point of contact.”
The narrator of the league’s video also explicitly highlighted Wilson’s history of violent checks and penalties.
“Including preseason and postseason 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 video said.
Wilson had an in-person hearing with the Department of Player Safety in New York Wednesday. The fact that he was offered an in-person hearing meant the NHL believed it “might require a suspension of six games or more.”
According to the Associated Press, Wilson will forfeit $1.26 million in salary because of the suspension. It is the longest suspension in the NHL for on-ice play since Raffi Torres of the San Jose Sharks was banned for 41 games in 2015, also for a preseason hit.
In the short term, Wilson will be replaced on the top line by Brett Connolly in Wednesday’s season opener. The Capitals also claimed right winger Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers from St. Louis Tuesday, as general manager Brian MacLellan felt the team needed more forward depth if Wilson were to miss extended time.
Wilson was suspended twice in the 2017 preseason; the second suspension caused him to miss four regular-season games. He was banned for three games of the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Capitals went on to vanquish the Pittsburgh Penguins without him.
On Tuesday, MacLellan and coach Todd Reirden shied away from saying outright that Wilson needs to change the way he plays.
“There are certain ways they are calling things. You need to be aware of how they’re making their calls on suspensions,” MacLellan said. “He’s a big, strong guy who skates really well. There is a lot of force behind his contact. He needs to be aware of how they’re determining what’s legal and what’s illegal from the league’s standpoint.”
“Our focus is really on what we’re getting ready to go through here and something that we worked a number of years,” Reirden said. “This organization has sacrificed a lot over the years to get to tomorrow.”
Some of Wilson’s teammates also have continued to stand by him. T.J. Oshie said he believes that Wilson’s 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame means his hits on the ice are harder to control.
“For me to hit someone in the chest, I can stand straight up pretty much, but he’s got to get almost into a full squat,” Oshie said.
Oshie had heard Sundqvist had a separated shoulder, which would imply a lot of the force from the hit went through the shoulder, he said. He also mentioned that the Department of Player Safety met with the Capitals before the season.
“We just had a meeting with Player Safety and with all the things they said, really makes that look like a hit that they want to keep in the game,” Oshie said.
MacLellan said the Department of Player Safety showed video clips of hits “exactly” like Wilson’s — not as examples of dirty hits, but clean ones.
“The head (of the player being hit) goes the same way as the body, which they were claiming means that you went through the body,” MacLellan said. “I originally thought there was a chance there wasn’t going to be any suspension at all.”
After Sunday’s game, Devante Smith-Pelly said that Sundqvist put himself in a dangerous position to take the hit by skating across the middle of the ice.
“It sucks the guy got hurt. At the same time, at a certain point, you can’t be cutting across the middle,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s preseason or the middle of the season, that play’s not exactly the safest.”
The Capitals signed Wilson to a new six-year, $31 million contract over the offseason.