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Power Outage: The NHL's new era has bred Tom Wilson types out of the game

A generation of players who never saw crash-and-bang hockey has taken over the NHL. The result? Goodbye, Tom Wilson-types.

Tom Wilson does one thing better than anyone in the game today: hurl his 6-foot-4, 218-pound pickup truck of a body into opposing players. After he claims a victim, he gladly drops the gloves with anyone trying to avenge a fallen teammate, and he typically claims casualty No. 2.

A couple decades ago, we’d toast Wilson for his ability to change a game. Don Cherry would pump him up as a “beauty” on Coach’s Corner. But now? Wilson’s blunt toolbox renders him a villain in the eyes of almost anyone outside Washington, where he’s revered as a Stanley Cup winner. He’s earned many trips to the NHL Department of Player Safety and, since he’s repeatedly shown he hasn’t learned to avoid crushing hits to the head, it’s gotten him suspended for increasingly significant periods of time, including this year’s 20-game ban. As recently as the early 2000s, Wilson would’ve fit the prototype of every elite power forward: big, mean, capable of putting the puck in the net. He’s a throwback to the heyday of Brendan Shanahan, Kevin Stevens and Keith Tkachuk. They were front-line scorers but also nasty customers. As recently as 2013, NHL scouts and executives ranked Wilson as a top-75 prospect in the pages of Future Watch. His skill set generated excitement as talent hawks saw some Milan Lucic in him.

But look at the 100 talented players, 21 and younger, ranked in this 2018 edition of Prospects Unlimited. See if you can find a Wilson, a prospect hyped for his blend of offense, physicality and sleep-with-the-lights-on menace. Spoiler alert: you won’t. Patrik Laine may have the behemoth body and scoring touch, while Jordan Greenway can staple people to the boards, but the classic power forward archetype can’t be found. It appears Wilson, equal parts asset and liability for the Caps, is the last of his gene pool.

TSN scout Craig Button, who has years of NHL scouting and a GM stint on his resume, links the trend to the birthdates of the new NHL draft classes, pointing out the Connor McDavids and Auston Matthews types were only seven or eight when the full-season NHL lockout ended in 2005, ushering in ‘The New NHL,’ eschewing the clutch-and-grab game. All these millennial players have ever known is this skill-based era. “The game changed dramatically and has continued to change with the emphasis on skating, speed, making plays with the puck, carrying the puck,” Button said. “You’re not going to have as much of a power element when there’s not as much of an emphasis on ‘Get the puck, grind them down.’ Before, it was more what I would call hand-to-hand combat because of the interference and the holding and the clutching and the grabbing.”

The 2005-06 season tossed hooking and holding in the trash, creating a big spike in power plays and goals. Last season, the league tightened its enforcement of slashing, resulting in another surge when shifty players such as Johnny Gaudreau got more ice to work with. Now we’re seeing an elite prospect list featuring no headhunters. That doesn’t mean we won’t see more Wilsons – but their days of dotting top-prospect lists and becoming first-line stars are numbered. They also won’t score as much as they might’ve in a bygone era when their size gave them an advantage in the trenches.

As Button points out, it’s not even a matter of the brutes being shut out. Eventually, they’ll be bred out by a class of players born in the era of concussion research, learning to avoid targeting the head from their youth hockey days. Those same players won’t grow up heralding fighting as a key component of the game, either. We’ll thus begin to see the idea of a power forward redefined.

Can a next-generation power forward still get under opponents’ skin? Sure. Maybe the ideal gets passed down from Keith Tkachuk to his sons Matthew and Brady. Perhaps we see new power forwards emerge in the mold of Jarome Iginla and Jamie Benn. Still, even they had no problem trading punches if provoked. The new power forward may be more of the Matthews or Pierre-Luc Dubois type: strong, difficult to knock off the puck and capable of intimidating by attacking…with the puck on their sticks, with north-south fury, backing up their opponents.

This story appears in the Prospects Unlimited 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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