Wow. We expected a lengthy suspension for Tom Wilson. But 20 games really blew the doors off.
It was clear Wilson wouldn't be playing for the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals for a while when he caught the St. Louis Blues' Oskar Sundqvist with an illegal check to the head in a Sept. 30 pre-season game. Only 16 games, including the playoffs and pre-season, had passed since Wilson earned a three-game ban for his illegal check to the head of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese. Wilson wasn't just a repeat offender: he was a very recent repeat offender.
Wilson had every possible strike against him when it came to the league determining his suspension length. Once a play is deemed illegal and severe enough to warrant supplemental discipline in the first place, repeat offenses and injuries to the victim then factor into lengthening any ban, per the collective bargaining agreement. We know Wilson was a repeat offender, and Sundqvist sustained a concussion on the play. We also know suspension lengths compound with each infraction for repeat offenders and that Wilson's three-game playoff ban was the equivalent of a much-longer regular season one, as playoff games are "weighted" given their significance.
Wilson was thus doomed to earn a monstrous suspension. It's tied for the ninth-longest in NHL history, trailing only Billy Coutu (life), Raffi Torres (41 games) Chris Simon (30), Jesse Boulerice (25), Chris Simon (25), Marty McSorley (23), Raffi Torres (21) and Dale Hunter (21). There's a strong parallel between Wilson's punishment and Torres'.
Torres had earned a 25-game ban, later trimmed to 21, for his headshot on Marian Hossa in a 2012 playoff game. Torres also got tossed for the playoffs after a headshot on Jarret Stoll in the 2013 playoffs. Knee troubles kept Torres off the ice for almost two seasons, so while he wasn't technically a repeat offender when he hit Jakob Silfverberg in 2015, Torres was tried as one. What earned him the mammoth 41-game suspension then was, in the DOPS' eyes, the fact he wasn't just repeating bad behavior but the exact same specific piece of bad behavior. The league had worked with him, watched video, tried to rehabilitate him, and it didn't work. He showed he simply wasn't learning.
That's exactly what we see happening with Wilson now. The DOPS video juxtaposes the Sundqvist hit with the three other collisions that earned Wilson suspensions last season. Watch it here:
The parallels to the Sundqvist hit, especially compared to the Aston-Reese hit, are simply too close. In both cases, the head is avoidable yet still becomes the principal point of contact. Wilson, despite working with the league to study and try to curb his behavior like Torres did, has shown he's learned nothing – like Torres did. That's four suspensions in Wilson's last 105 games, "an unprecedented frequency of suspensions in the history of the Department of Player Safety," says DOPS senior director Patrick Burke in the video.
Factoring in all the parameters – the repeat offenses, the injury to Sundqvist, the recent history of committing similar on-ice crimes – 20 games seems highly reasonable. It's a strong, message-sending decision from George Parros, the league's senior vice-president of player safety.
The news is terrible for the Capitals, who lose their first-line right winger. Wilson will also have to walk on eggshells upon his return. Another violation of rule 48.1 will launch him into the Torres stratosphere, likely with a half-season ban or worse.