As the Washington Capitals were in the midst of thrashing the Boston Bruins in Wednesday’s 7-0 blowout, a chorus of chants broke out from the Capital One Arena crowd from time-to-time. They chanted for the defending Stanley Cup champions to go back-to-back. They cheered “Let’s Go Caps,” as they do for every home game.
But with around seven minutes left in the third period, another loud rallying cry came from the right side of the soldout arena.
“Free Tom Wilson! Free Tom Wilson!”
Hours before puck drop, the Capitals were hit with the news that their first-line winger would be suspended for the first 20 games of the season, punishment for his preseason hit on St.Louis Blues center Oskar Sundqvist.
If the ban stands — Wilson has the right to appeal within 48 hours — the 24-year-old would lose $1.26 million of his $5.1 million salary. The Capitals would also have to replace the production of someone expected to be a major contributor.
“I was pretty surprised,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “I think it’s unfortunate for Tom that the league is making an example out of him. They set the standards, they want to get the dirty stuff out of the game. Which I think at least Tom’s play was on the ice and he was hitting the guy that had the puck milliseconds before.”
Last week, Wilson delivered a blindside hit on Sundqvist, leaving the winger concussed and with a shoulder injury. In a video explaining the punishment, the NHL cited Wilson’s “unprecedented frequency of suspensions in the history of the Department of Player Safety.”
This is Wilson’s fourth suspension in the last 105 games, dating back to last year’s preseason.
The Capitals declined to make general manager Brian MacLellan available to reporters after the league’s ruling, and Wilson has not addressed the incident, either.
Coach Todd Reirden said he couldn’t comment on the matter, but indicated Wilson was likely to appeal the suspension.
Wilson was on the ice for the team’s pre-game festivities, which included raising the franchise’s Stanley Cup banner. He received a warm greeting from the crowd and from his teammates.
“Obviously I think everybody probably knows how we feel about it in our room,” goaltender Braden Holtby said of Wilson’s suspension. “It’s a tough thing since we don’t agree with it but it was tough for Tom. I think the biggest thing is we’ve got to support him through this. It’s unfair and tough for a good player like that. He’s obviously a huge part of our team.”
The Capitals expected Wilson to develop further after a promising campaign last season, giving him a new six-year, $31 million contract in the offseason. Wilson, who had 14 goals and 21 assists last season, told reporters in May after his three-game playoff suspension that he had to be more careful with his physicality moving forward.
It is unclear, meanwhile, if the league’s multi-layered appeal process will help Wilson reduce his ban.
In the meantime, the Capitals will have to adjust without him.
“It’s hard,” Oshie said. “Tom’s such a big part of our team. I know he’s younger, but he’s kind of the big brother out there. He protects guys. I think other teams, when you got a guy like that – (Ryan) Reaves is a pretty big heavyweight, for example, when you got a guy like Reaves on the team, guys don’t really run around and take advantage of people because they know they’ll get away with it if not.
“So we’ll have other guys step up, but Tom’s such a big part of our team. Top-line guy, plays big minutes in the [penalty kill] and brings a lot of emotion to the game for us. He’ll be missed.”