Tom Wilson went too far. The NHL did not go far enough.
Wilson, the 27-year-old Washington Capitals forward, has always been a lightning rod for controversy as one of the league's most notorious tough guys and one of the most skilled. But after his role in a game against the New York Rangers on Monday night that injured star forward Artemi Panarin, fans and media were calling for an outright ban of Wilson.
If you haven't seen what happened, let me catch you up. Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich had a scoring opportunity on the doorstep of the Caps' goal. He fell onto his stomach while trying to jam the puck into the net and Wilson took offense to a whack at goalie Vitek Vanecek, and the altercation began.
Buchnevich lay prone on the ice, and Wilson stuck his stick over his neck to keep him on the ice while he punched him in the back of the head.
Rangers forward Ryan Strome pulled Wilson off Buchnevich, and Panarin jumped on Wilson's back to get him away from Strome.
Here's where things took a dangerous turn.
Wilson ripped off Panarin's helmet and threw him to the ground not once, but twice. Panarin's head bounced off the ice.
Panarin left the game with a lower-body injury, and the Rangers ruled him out for the final three games of the season. Meanwhile, Wilson went to the penalty box for a roughing double-minor and a 10-minute game misconduct penalty. In an extra flippant move, he flexed his muscles in his shoulder pads for the camera while serving said penalty.
To make matters worse, the Capitals sent out, and later deleted, an exceptionally tone-deaf tweet about Wilson "choosing violence" and living "rent free" in the heads of critics. It was clearly geared toward the TikTok generation, and it was in such poor taste the Capitals themselves said it didn't meet their own social media standards.
It was all a giant mess, and now the NHL has an even bigger one on its hands because of its own inaction.
The NHL Department of Player Safety issued him a $5,000 fine, the maximum amount allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, for roughing Buchnevich. It had no choice but to officiate by the book, but maybe the book is the problem considering Wilson, a repeat offender who has been suspended five times and paid over $1 million in fines, is clearly a danger to others on the ice.
Wilson claims to be a changed man after a seven-game suspension earlier this season for an illegal check to the head of Brandon Carlo of the Boston Bruins. Clearly, that penalty wasn't enough to prevent him from "choosing violence" again. There was no accountability for Wilson and none from Player Safety on why it chose not to suspend him.
We know why Player Safety didn't suspend him: What it saw was, yes, roughing of Buchnevich, but anything that happened after that, like the scrums in the corner, were just hockey scrums, and those are tough to regulate.
There was no mention of what happened to Panarin during those scrums in the corner, which seemed like an egregious oversight. The Rangers found it so egregious they issued a statement calling for George Parros' job.
"Wilson is a repeat offender with a long history of these type of acts and we find it shocking that the NHL and their Department of Player Safety failed to take the appropriate action and suspend him indefinitely," the club said. "Wilson's dangerous and reckless actions caused an injury to Artemi Panarin that will prevent him from playing again this season. We view this as a dereliction of duty by NHL Head of Player Safety, George Parros, and believe he is unfit to continue in his current role."
The Caps, on the other hand, found it to be exactly what Parros, the head of the department, found it to be: a hockey play.
"I thought it was just a scrum, like physical play," Washington coach Peter Laviolette told reporters in his postgame Zoom press conference. "There was something going on originally with the goalie, and they're jamming at the goalie and a bunch of players jump in there. It happens a lot."
It does happen a lot, and the NHL needs to step in and regulate it. The problem with officiating by the book is that it doesn't leave a lot of room for leeway when it comes to player safety decisions. Safety needs to be the priority more so than playing by the exact rules.
Here's a non-Wilson example: In November 2019, in a game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks, Colorado defenseman Matt Calvert was hit in the head by a wrist shot from Elias Pettersson. He lay bleeding on the ice while the play continued because the Canucks had possession of the puck. Therefore, the officials couldn't whistle it dead.
There needs to be room to make a judgment call when it comes to matters of player safety.
Here's another example, this one involving Wilson.
In 2018, the Capitals were hosting the struggling New Jersey Devils. Brett Seney, an undersized rookie forward being used by a depleted Devils squad, had a couple of chances on breakaways. After one of those breakaway attempts, Seney corralled the rebound and turned to rim it off the wall. Wilson came up behind him and upended him with a late, high hit to the head.
Wilson was ejected from the game but faced no supplementary discipline for a hit the Devils called "senseless."
You know what Wilson could have done? Contain Seney on the breakout. Wilson was a Stanley Cup winner and Seney was an American Leaguer. It's baffling that Wilson continues to do these things because he's actually a quality player. He doesn't need to play dirty or lay down cheap shots against lesser players like Seney or stars like Panarin.
"Tom Wilson is an effective hockey player," Strome said Tuesday during his Zoom availability. "I think he's proven he can score goals, he can play with good players. I think he plays the game with an edge, and it is what it is. He's got good skill, and he produces in this league. But I just think he crossed a line."
It leads his opponents to believe he has a lack of respect for them and an inability to contain his own anger and emotions.
"I figured you should have some more respect for the game and for the players," Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad said after the game. "I don't honestly know where to start. It's just there's zero respect. I don't know why I'm surprised. Just horrible."
Wilson was not playing on the edge against the Rangers, as many have asserted. He lost his cool and made a dangerous move against not one, but two defenseless players.
"A line was crossed," Rangers coach David Quinn said. "[Panarin] didn't have his helmet on, [he was] vulnerable, he got hurt. You know, to me, there was an awful lot there to suspend him."
Fighting will always be a part of hockey, but the concussion problem is well documented, and the league has stepped up its efforts to prioritize player safety. Now, the NHL could be looking at an even bigger fight Wednesday night when the Capitals and Rangers square off again. New York could call up Mason Geertsen from Hartford of the AHL. Geertsen has 14 fights over the last two seasons in the AHL, and at 6'4" and 220 pounds, he's a formidable opponent for the similarly built Wilson.
The league dropped the ball on this one, and now the Rangers may have to take matters into their own hands. If Wilson engages, he could face more discipline, and the Capitals could lose him during the playoffs. He's a key member of the team on and off the ice. He's well liked in the room, and he's the NHLPA rep for the team.
But then again, he has proved to be Teflon Tom. The NHL will continue to enable him unless greater action is taken.
"As players, you want the league to have your back in those situations," Strome said. "I just feel like they didn't."