Building off a breakthrough: Tom Wilson

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

Tom Wilson is, essentially, a magnet for controversy. If you wanted to start a fight on Hockey Twitter, you could do worse than to utter his name around Capitals fans and foes.

There might be one thing everyone can agree on, though: last season was easily the best of his NHL career.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Wilson set a new career-high for goals with 14, a mark that matched his combined output in 2015-16 and 2016-17 (he scored seven in each of those seasons). Wilson generated more assists (21) in 2017-18 than he had points (19) the year before.

The polarizing player didn’t just generate the best offensive numbers – by far – of his NHL days. Wilson also cemented himself as a player Barry Trotz trusted on a first line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

After averaging almost 13 minutes per game during his previous two seasons, Wilson logged nearly 16 minutes per night in 2017-18. His role only increased in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the rugged winger averaged 17:45 TOI over 21 postseason contests.

You can debate the merits (and demerits) of Wilson’s deeper stats until you’re blue in the face, but it’s difficult to deny that the 24-year-old checked out on a higher level than he ever had before.

Wilson enjoyed such a breakthrough that he set the stage for a set of debates that (maybe refreshingly?) won’t revolve around his latest thunderous body check: is he worth that big, new contract?

One could generate plenty of discussion regarding whether the 2017-18 edition of Tom Wilson would be worthy of a six-year contract that carries a $5.167M cap hit. Without a doubt, the proponents of such a deal will claim that Wilson brought a lot more to the table than his 14 goals and 35 points.

Either way, expectations will rise as Wilson’s bank account swells.

You know, not that such arguments will bother Wilson, allegedly.

“It doesn’t really matter to me what everybody says,” Wilson said recently, via TSN. “No matter what happens, half the people are going to be happy, half the people aren’t. That’s just the way life is …”

That’s fair enough, but what should the Capitals expect from Wilson next season, and beyond? Is his steep climb in production the tip of the iceberg, or was he scraping the ceiling?

It’s not shocking that Washington didn’t lay out specifics regarding what they expect from Wilson after signing him, but it’s interesting to note some of GM Brian MacLellan’s comments.

“Tom is an invaluable member of our team and we are pleased that he will play a great part in our foreseeable future,” MacLellan said after the contract was announced. “Tom is a unique player in this league. At 24 years of age, he has an impressive amount of experience and we believe that he will only continue to grow and improve as a player. With his ability to play in virtually any game situation, teams need players like Tom in order to succeed in the NHL.”

Is Wilson really a player who moves the needle? The Capitals are paying a big price with that thought in mind, and it all came together thanks to a breakthrough season in 2017-18.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.