On Tom Wilson, Player Safety and avoiding suspension

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For the second time this postseason Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson has been fortunate enough to avoid discipline from the NHL Department of Player Safety for a hit to the head that injured an opponent.

In the first-round it was Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alexander Wennberg, who went on to miss three games after he was hit in the head early in their series. Wilson was given a two-minute penalty for charging on the play, but the hit did not warrant a disciplinary hearing, let alone a fine from the DoPS.

On Sunday, it was Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin who was knocked out of the Capitals’ 4-1 Game 2 win. Dumoulin was back on the ice at practice for the Penguins on Monday and seems like he will be available for Game 3 of the series on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Wilson once again avoided a disciplinary hearing and a suspension for what could probably be best described as a borderline and controversial hit.

He avoided a suspension on this one because, in the NHL’s view (via ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski), head contact was unavoidable because Dumoulin, in bracing for contact from an oncoming Alex Ovechkin, changed the position of his head just prior to contact. There did not seem to be any word on the changing position of Wilson’s shoulder, which seemed to play just as big of a role in the contact as Dumoulin changing the position of his head.

He avoided a suspension in the first-round on the Wennberg hit because the DoPS could not determine if the head was the main point of contact given the available camera angles.

[Related: Tom Wilson avoids suspension for hit on Brian Dumoulin]

Viewed in a vacuum and as isolated incidents those explanations might hold up. They might make sense. They might even be justified.

Here is the problem with that: This same thing keeps happening with Tom Wilson.

He always seems to find himself in these positions. He always seems to find himself at the center of the controversial play where “there is nothing else he could have done,” or “the contact could not be avoided,” or “there was not a clear view of what happened.” No matter the situation, no matter the hit, no matter the result, there is an always an excuse for why it was okay or why it shouldn’t have been elevated to the level of supplemental discipline. The story of his career to this point can probably be summed up as: Hey, that was probably a bad hit with an unfortunate result for the guy on the receiving end of it but there just wasn’t enough evidence to suspend him … this time.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Since entering the NHL at the start of the 2013-14 season no player in the NHL has been penalized more than Wilson. His 806 penalty minutes in the regular season are 85 more than the next closest player, and he is one of just three players in the league to be assessed more than even 600 penalty minutes during that stretch (Antoine Roussel at 721 and Cody McLeod at 707) are the only others.

He is third when it comes to penalty minutes in the playoffs (only seven behind the leader, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin) even though he has only played in 46 playoff games during that stretch. The two players ahead of him — Malkin and P.K. Subban — have played in 71 and 59, respectively, during that same stretch.

His career to this point is littered with borderline plays that leave plenty of room for debate as to whether or not they are clean, dirty, or something in between.

A brief sampling:

  • In 2015, he was given a match penalty for a hit on Ottawa Senators forward Curtis Lazar (play here) that was later rescinded, allowing him to avoid the mandatory suspension that comes with a match penalty.
  • During the 2015-16 he was ejected for boarding Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell (play here), a play that he was not suspended for.
  • Later that season he obliterated Colorado Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov on a hit that left Zadorov concussed (play here). There was no suspension.
  • During the 2013-14 season Wilson had a phone hearing for a violent hit on Philadelphia Flyers Brayden Schenn. He was not only not suspended — something that is extremely rare when a player has a hearing with the DoPS — the DoPS released a nearly four-minute video (seen here) explaining why he was not suspended (the DoPS rarely goes on the record for why a player was not suspended, let alone singling out a specific play for this sort of in-depth description).

Those are just some of the borderline plays that didn’t result in punishment. Amazingly, for all of the penalty minutes he has received, the times he has been ejected, and all of the plays that create arguments he has only been fined or suspended three times in his career.

During the 2015-16 playoffs (also against the Penguins) he was given a $2,900 fine for kneeing Conor Sheary on a play where he deliberately went out of his way en route to the bench during a line change to deliver a hit away from the play.

He was suspended twice for incidents this preseason. The first was a slap on the wrist that kept him out of two preseason games for this hit on St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas.

Then, just one week later in another preseason game against the very same Blues team, he was given a four-game suspension for boarding Samuel Blais.

When the NHL DoPS reviews a play for suspension the first thing they do is eliminate the players involved and simply look at the hit itself as an isolated incident. Past transgressions do not matter. Reputations do not matter. Repeat offender status does not matter. It is simply the play itself they are looking at. The discussion at that point is centered entirely around “does this play warrant discipline on our part?”

If the answer to that question is yes, then — and only then — does a player’s past come into play when determining the length and severity of the punishment.

This, of course, is done in an effort to be fair and to not let any bias play into the ruling. That is entirely understandable. In most cases it probably works in handing out punishments.

It can lead to some issues.

When it comes to Wilson and the plays he has been involved in throughout his career there is always some amount of gray area in them. The Lazar play could be written off as accidental. Same as the Dumoulin play. Maybe the head wasn’t the main point of contact or targeted on Wennberg or Zadorov. On any one of them you can look at them and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t the intended result, or that isn’t what he was going for, or that there was some other extenuating circumstance that made the play what it was.

At what point, though, does this no longer become an accident?

If a player — in this case, Wilson — keeps finding himself in these situations when does it stop becoming an unfortunate series of events and start becoming a trend? At what point does it simply become about the player that is the common denominator in all of these situations?

At any given time there are more than 700 players on NHL rosters and there are only a small handful of them that we keep having these discussions about when it comes to their style of play and the incidents they are involved in. Matt Cooke used to be one of those players. Raffi Torres used to be one of those players. Brad Marchand, quite famously, is still one of them. And like Wilson, Marchand always seems to leave enough gray area for debate on a lot of his incidents (the old, accidentally on purpose type of play). Even though he has been suspended and fined more than any other player in the league during the DoPS era, there are countless other plays that seem to toe that line.

Even though the NHL’s DoPS won’t handle it this way, all of those players should lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this stuff. Wilson should be right there with them.

Wilson and the Capitals will argue that all of this is because of his reputation and the fact he has a target on his back.

“Yes, a little bit, yeah,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz on Monday, via the Washington Post, when asked if Wilson has a reputation to overcome.

“It’s something that you try to grow out of. He’s grown as a player. He’s gone from being a fourth-line energy guy to first-line power forward, and sometimes those reputations stay with you a little bit and you have to outgrow that, if you will, or it takes a little time. I think he’s doing a really good job. He studies it, he looks at it, he’s trying to get better all the time. It’s something he has to battle a little bit.”

Maybe he does have a reputation to overcome. Maybe he does have a target. But it is a target he has more than earned given his chosen style of play throughout his career. A style of play that carefully toes the line, always leaving just enough room for debate as to whether or not he intended to do the thing that he did that resulted in the unfortunate result for the opponent to avoid a suspension. After all, there was probably just nothing else he can do that situation.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.