Truth be told, the Washington Capitals took an enormous risk when they declined to exercise their right to take Tom Wilson to arbitration. And while it’s one that will likely cost them some money in the short-term, they’re gambling it will pay off handsomely in the long run.
First, the background. Wilson is a 24-year-old restricted free agent with arbitration rights. His representatives and the Capitals have been negotiating on an off throughout the off-season on a deal that in the end could be four or five years. The only sticking point at the moment is Wilson’s monetary worth, which is a difficult projection. Is he a first-line player who can hang with the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin and score 0.74 points per game the way he did in the playoffs? Or is he a bottom-six forward who will always play on the edge of the rulebook and occasionally be unavailable to his team because he’s suspended? What if the NHL bans all headshots, intentional or unintentional? So many questions. In the end, if all things work out between Wilson and the Capitals, he’s likely looking at a yearly salary between $3.5 million and $4.5 million depending upon the term. And Wilson wants to be with the Capitals as much as they want to have him.
For pretty obvious reasons, Wilson did not file for arbitration. Even though his 14 goals and 35 points (with virtually no power-play time) were career highs, they’re not the kinds of numbers that look good in arbitration. And for the purposes of establishing comparable players, playoff performance can’t be used. So Wilson was never going to go that route.
But the Capitals could have. By taking Wilson to arbitration, they could have pushed the needle forward on the urgency to make a deal. And at the very worst, they would have had him under contract next season. But there is something of a special relationship between Wilson and the Capitals. He was drafted and developed by the organization, which has an appreciation for what he brings to the game. When you look at the analytics, Kuznetsov is a much better player when he has Wilson riding shotgun than when he doesn’t.
Arbitration can be a nasty, nasty process. If it had gone to a hearing, the Capitals would have been in the unenviable position of trashing their own player in the hearing, belittling his accomplishments in an effort to try to persuade the arbitrator that he’s not worth the salary he’d be asking. Nothing personal. Just business. Except for the fact that it does get personal almost every time.
The Capitals essentially weren’t willing to take the risk of alienating a player they value in exchange for a short-term goal. That will cost them more in salary and cap space this season because, depending upon the term, they will be buying either two or three years of unrestricted free agency. That kind of term is going to cost them at the front end of the deal. But if Wilson can continue his upward trajectory, they’ll be saving at the back end.
The big question in all of this is exactly what kind of player Wilson is going to be. If he plays with players of Kuznetsov’s and Ovechkin’s ilk for an entire season, he has the potential to be a 20-goal, 50-point producer. With some power-play time, perhaps his goal total can go as high as 25. Combine that with the physical package he brings to the game and that is an extremely scary opponent. Following his regular season, Wilson scored 0.74 points per game in the playoffs, but was also suspended three games for an illegal check to the head that left Zach Aston-Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins with a broken jaw and a concussion.
There’s no indication the Capitals are unwilling to accept the bad with the good when it comes to Wilson. In fact, his game has largely been seen as a positive thing for them. Wilson is not likely to change his an approach that has made him successful and given some Capitals a little more room on the ice, so now it’s a matter of figuring out just how much better Wilson is going to get over the next four or five years.
This is a deal that has all the makings of one that will get done. The Capitals and Wilson’s agent, Mark Guy, are expected to meet again later this week and while there is still ample work to be done, there’s no reason not to expect Wilson to be signed and in training camp with a long-term deal in his pocket.
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