We can pinpoint the moment Tom Wilson went from background grinder to bona fide shift disturber. You can probably guess it: Game 4 of the first round in the 2015 playoffs, with his Washington Capitals visiting the New York Islanders.
The full-speed angle makes it look like Isles defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky got in Wilson's way and paid the price. The slo-mo angle looks like Wilson carried out a search-and-destroy mission on Visnovsky. Wilson received a charging penalty but no suspension. The debate is played out, and there's no point reopening it.
Regardless of how clean or dirty that collision was, it symbolized something. The Capitals trailed the series 2-1 at that point and pulled out a 2-1 overtime win to draw even. Afterward, the Isles were furious at Wilson. Kyle Okposo called him an "idiot." New York arrived in D.C. hot under the collar for Game 5. Anders Lee challenged Wilson to a fight that left both parties bloodied. Casey Cizikas speared Wilson in the groin. The Isles took 31 minutes in penalties to the Capitals' nine. Washington won 5-1 and took three of the final four games to capture the series.
Up until the Visnovsky hit, Wilson still felt like a grinder in training. He had plenty of promise, as evidenced by his first-round draft pedigree, but he remained a project. Blowing up Visnovsky got Wilson noticed and changed the dynamic of a playoff series. He was a villain on Long Island. He got into a good team's head. And for Wilson, who turned 21 in May, it came naturally. He was merely eager to do what he did best and contribute.
"It's amped up a whole other level in the playoffs, and you've got to step up," he said. "Whatever you have to do for your team, responsibility-wise…if you have to make a big hit, or get to the net, or score a goal, or whatever your role is in the playoffs, you just have to do that as well as you can and help the team. I just tried to bring some energy and get in on that forecheck and make their D's lives a little bit harder."
Wilson was already feared in many circles before the Islanders series. He was a monster in major junior with the Plymouth Whalers and carried the ever-popular "next Milan Lucic" label when Washington drafted him 16th overall in 2012. Wilson fought 14 times as a rookie in 2013-14, facing mean customers such as Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Reaves and Rich Clune. In the 2014 Lists Issue of THN, our staff voted Wilson the league's fifth-best fighter.
Wilson really didn't pick his spots in 2014-15, though. He fought another dozen times, facing Reaves again, Matt Martin twice and Jared Boll, too. The hockeyfights.com voting system awarded Wilson a 7-4-1 record against some tough hombres. The 2015 List Issue ascended him to second in our fighter rankings – and second in our vote for the league's toughest player.
Upon learning about the THN vote, Wilson simply smiled. And, when asked if he'd become an alpha dog in the NHL with a target on his back, he didn't deny it.
"Yeah, for sure," he said. "Even from the first couple games I played. When a guy plays that way, you kind of recognize the other guys who play that way, and you know who's willing."
The Islanders series seemed to highlight Wilson's transition from whippersnapper, eager to find a challenger, to the guy everyone wants a piece of. The hunter is just as much the hunted now. Wilson is relevant.
He's also not satisfied yet. Sure, he's here to stay as a premier intimidator, 6-foot-4, 210-pounds and spritely as can be at his age. But Wilson tapped into some offensive ability in junior. He jumped from nine goals and 27 points in 49 OHL games his draft year to 23 goals and 58 points in 48 games his last year of junior. He made a modest jump from 10 points in 82 games as a Caps rookie to 17 in 67 games last season, good for a two-fold increase in per-game production. His vision, scoring ability and playmaking instincts are underrated. He even saw shifts on the Caps' top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom last season – more than any other winger did at even strength, according to Left Wing Lock. Wilson says he's actively focused on developing the rest of his game and looking for more offense to complement his physical element.
Wilson likely won't do his damage from Washington's top six this season, even if he keeps improving, as new additions Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie will occupy the top two right wing spots and likely won't be displaced. But maybe 2015-16 is the year Wilson blooms into his scariest version yet: a blunt instrument who also creates size mismatches on the forecheck and generates offense from the third line. That would make the Capitals, whom we've picked to the reach the Stanley Cup final, that much more dangerous.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin