Being Tom Wilson: Inside the life of hockey’s most hated man

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Tom Wilson tries not to read everything about him on social media.

You’d think being on the receiving end of endless tweets and messages that are, well, not suitable for work would be reason enough to skip them. But Wilson can’t just ignore it all because sometimes it goes beyond hockey.

”Last year there’s people putting my parents’ address on Twitter and people underneath being like, ‘Oh, good to know,”’ Wilson said. ”I said: ‘Hey, just so you know, this is out there. The mail and stuff, just make sure you’re aware.”’

Such is life for Wilson, one of the most hated players in the NHL – if not the guy at the top of the list. The Washington Capitals winger has been suspended four times over the past 19 months and there were a few other incidents that might have crossed the line. He is the guy opponents and their fans despise and the player no teammate would willingly do without. Inside the Capitals’ locker room, the 25-year-old Wilson is so admired he could succeed Alex Ovechkin as captain.

In an era where enforcers are hard to find, not only does Wilson play on the edge – he lives on it.

”I think a lot of guys maybe have lost some respect for him,” said St. Louis Blues forward Zach Sanford, who broke into the league with Wilson and the Capitals. ”He’s had quite a few cheap hits the past couple years. But that’s just how he plays. He’s on the edge. Sometimes he crosses it.”

Wilson gave Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg a concussion and broke the jaw of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese in the playoffs. He gave St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist a concussion with a hit to the head – in the preseason – that drew a 20-game suspension that was reduced to 14 by an arbitrator. He has avoided trouble since then and set career highs with 22 goals and 40 points in 63 games, becoming one of Washington’s most important pieces as it tries to repeat as Stanley Cup champion.

”He’s shooting the puck better than he has ever done,” said New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick, a fellow 2012 Capitals draft pick and junior teammate of Wilson’s in the Ontario Hockey League. ”He’s got a good glide for a big guy, and that’s what you’ve seen, I think, with other guys around the league with that frame that haven’t been able to continue.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

When the Capitals selected Wilson 16th overall seven years ago, then-general manager George McPhee hoped they’d be getting a power forward like Milan Lucic. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Wilson might turn out to be better than Lucic, especially if he can stay on the right side of the suspension line and play 75-plus games in a season.

”He’s fast, he’s got good skill, he plays a physical game, he puts D-men on edge and other forwards on edge when he’s on the ice,” said Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, who gave Wilson a concussion of his own in December and apologized in the aftermath of the hit. ”I think he is a really good player. I think if he played a little smarter, he’d be even better.”

Wilson has worked at that. He spent time with vice president of player safety and former enforcer George Parros going over video clips and what the league deems acceptable. This season he has been thinking more about each hit he delivers because the next one that crosses the line could cost him more than a couple of months.

The Toronto native said his suspension history – two for illegal checks to the head, one for interference and one for boarding – has forced him to change his approach.

”I have to be aware of it,” Wilson said. ”Hockey’s an extremely fast game, and it’s a hard-hitting game. It’s probably faster than it ever has been, so those plays happen quickly and I’ve just got to do the best I can to control the situation and control the outcome, and that’s just something that I’ve kind of tried to focus on.”

Wilson is one of the very few players to have a disciplinary hearing and not get punished, for an incident with Brayden Schenn in 2013 that was so polarizing the NHL put out a video to explain why it didn’t suspend him.

This season, referees gave Wilson a match penalty and ejected him for a hit on New Jersey’s Brett Seney in November, but the league reviewed it, rescinded it and he played on.

”I don’t know if his timing is wrong or what’s happening, but I wouldn’t say he’s dirty all the time. But obviously he got those incidents where he’s come wrong into situations and that is something he needs to work on,” Sundqvist said. ”He’s one of the most important players for Washington and unfortunately he’s been doing some bad stuff and I hope he comes to his senses and stops doing that.”

Pittsburgh’s Jack Johnson said Wilson has a history of being ”reckless and dangerous” and that players have to be aware of where Wilson is on the ice because ”he’s big and runs around.”

For all the outside talk about taming Wilson, the Capitals don’t really want that.

”He has to remember what he is at times,” alternate captain Brooks Orpik said. ”Without that physical side, he’s not going to get the space and the chances that he gets offensively. The reason he gets as many chances and opportunities is because of his physical play and his intimidation. If that leaves his game, then his opportunities are going to be suppressed.”

Teammate Nicklas Backstrom said one of Wilson’s strengths is that he can do it all from 5-on-5 to power play to penalty kill. Washington signed Wilson to a $31 million, six-year contract last summer for all those elements, which he showcased with 15 points in 21 playoff games during the Stanley Cup run.

Wilson turned Carl Hagelin from an enemy into a friend after five hard-fought playoff series against him. Hagelin watched Penguins’ teammate Aston-Reese go down on a hit to the head from Wilson in the second round last spring, but after a trade to the Capitals, he has come to appreciate the human underneath the No. 43 jersey.

”When you play against certain guys, especially in the playoffs, you obviously don’t like him. You dislike him a lot,” Hagelin said. ”And then you come to a new team and you get to know him as a person and all of a sudden he’s a great guy. … It’s one of those things, just like any other person, you have to prove yourself to me as a person.”

Wilson said he wants to be the kind of guy who’s hard to play against but also move on without any hard feelings. Yet he is aware of his reputation.

”The hockey world’s very small,” he said. ”I always wanted to be someone that’s hard to play against but you can go out and have a beer with the guy and have fun in the summer or whatever. I think that’s what hockey is kind of about.”

Wilson, of course, is not just the muscle on a star-laden team featuring Ovechkin, Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov but is also a young leader the organization is building around.

”There are those moments that you don’t like to see when that stuff’s going down, but the rest of it and all the Caps fans and all that make up for the good side of things,” Wilson said. ”You see kind of those scary things happen in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good life and I love what I do and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

AP Sports Writers Will Graves and Pat Graham and freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Here come the St. Louis Blues

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The rollercoaster of a season for the St. Louis Blues saw them sitting in 31st place in the NHL on Jan. 3. There were some games in-hand, and a sign things could be improving, but the results just weren’t coming consistently.

Those early days of 2019 are currently referred to in St. Louis as the pre-Jordan Binnington Era. The 25-year-old rookie netminder had appeared in two games in relief this season but had yet to make his first career start. He would get that chance four days later and kick it off with a shutout against the Philadelphia Flyers.

One month later the Blues have jumped up the standings and reside in the second Western Conference wild card spot, six points behind the Dallas Stars in the Central Division with two games in-hand and tied for the fewest games played in the league. They are tied for the third-most points in the NHL since Jan. 3 with 21 points (10-4-1), which includes Thursday night’s fantastic 1-0 overtime win against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

That win featured 32 saves by Binnington, who has overtaken Jake Allen for the No. 1 job in net and been one of the main factors in the Blues’ ascent. The netminder had only one taste of the NHL before this season, a relief appearance during the 2015-16 season, and has spent majority of his professional career in the AHL.

In 10 starts, Binnington has helped the Blues win eight of them, and since that shutout against Philadelphia on Jan. 7, he’s third in the NHL in even-strength save percentage (.954) and, per Natural Stat Trick, has posted a .885 high-danger save percentage — compared to the .796 HDSV% that Allen has recorded this season.

Then there’s the head coach.

This isn’t the first time Craig Berube has led a turnaround. While he had a longer runway to do it with the Flyers in 2013-14, he took over for Peter Laviolette after three games in that season and led them to a win away from the second round. The Blues are 17-13-2 since he replaced Mike Yeo in November and the win over the Lightning encapsulated what he’s tried to instill in his players since taking over.

“The composure that our team’s found, I think more than anything the frustration doesn’t creep in anymore,” Berube said via the Post-Dispatch. “I shouldn’t say anymore, but not as much. We had the three power plays in a row, we could’ve got real frustrated after that but we didn’t. And that’s important. Just stay with it and stay playing.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround considering just two months ago Berube and Brayden Schenn labeled the team as “fragile” after they were booed off home ice following a 6-1 defeat by the Vancouver Canucks. Vladimir Tarasenko apologized to the fans for the team’s poor play, and emotions boiled over in practice when Robert Bortuzzo and Zach Sanford scuffled. Then you had trade rumors putting Tarasenko, Colton Parayko and captain Alex Pietrangelo on the next flights out of town.

General manager Doug Armstrong said after firing Yeo that his team was just “not good enough” and that their core “have to get us out of this.” The Blues’ turnaround can’t all be credited to Binnington. That core has been dependable with some assistance. Tarasenko, Pietrangelo, Schenn, and Ryan O'Reilly have led the way, with Parayko and Oskar Sundqvist chipping in as well. This success has also come with David Perron out since mid-January and Jaden Schwarz goalless since Dec. 18.

This run is coming at a good time for the Blues in a wild West playoff race. The last place Los Angeles Kings are five points out of a wild card spot, so things are tight. But outside of the Chicago Blackhawks, the teams around St. Louis are struggling, especially Central foes the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild. The games in-hand are valuable at this point, but are useless if they are unable to take points from them.

Considering the bottom half of the West playoff picture changes nightly, the Blues are in a good place and trending upward at the right time.

“It’s fun to be a part of this group right now, and I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Binnington. “We’re just going to continue on this path and keep going to make our push.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Pro Niemi; Odd night for the Blues

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Three Stars

1. Antti Niemi

After floundering with the Stars and flopping briefly with the Penguins, it sure seemed like last season would be Niemi’s last in the NHL.

Niemi even played two forgettable games for the Panthers team he frustrated tonight, so you can forgive his former teammates for wondering where this guy was. (Stars management might be doing that, too, if they’re not cursing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for losing to the Lightning.)

Niemi set a new career-high with 52 saves against Florida, with only Mike Hoffman‘s Forsberg-like goal beating him.

That performance stands taller than some other great goalie performances that should get at least honorable mentions. Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched a 35-save shutout against Benn and those Stars. Laurent Brossoit continued his brilliant work as Winnipeg’s gem of a backup, making 43 out of 44 stops. But Niemi’s 52 saves fell one short of tying a franchise record for the NHL’s most storied franchise. Seems fair to give him the top spot.

Not bad for a guy who legitimately seemed to be done last season.

2. Mika Zibanejad

As much as the Rangers’ opponents from Carolina rank as a team to watch at the trade deadline, the Rangers are no slouches themselves in sell mode.

It would be surprising to see Zibanejad go in such a liquidation, at least if the Rangers don’t want this to be a lengthy rebuild. He’s a prime-age scorer, with Tuesday’s two goals and two assists pushing his season total to an impressive 41 points. Zibanejad only had 47 points all of last season, and 2015-16’s 51 represent a career-high, so he could really set a new bar for himself. The talent’s seemingly always been there, so it’s pretty exciting to see such growth, and it must be painful to compare his work to that of trade partner Derick Brassard.

Mats Zuccarello collected three assists in this one as well, including a truly brilliant one to set up one of Z’s goals. Zuccarello now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game run.

The Rangers really dominate the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden, apparently.

3. Viktor Arvidsson

Arvidsson was one of two players to collect a hat trick on “National Hat Day,” with Tomas Hertl being the other. Arvidsson gets the nod for two reasons: 1) one of Hertl’s three goals included an empty-netter and 2) Arvidsson managed a GWG in his efforts.

(Joe Thornton scored the game-winner in what was his 1,000th game with the Sharks.)

Some of those Arvidsson goals included some great moments from his teammates, much like Zibanejad was boosted by Zuccarello. You can see a great outlet pass from Mattias Ekholm and a falling helper from Ryan Johansen in the highlights of Nashville’s one-sided win against Washington.

Strange, tough night for St. Louis

The Blues lost in overtime to the Islanders, with Jordan Binnington suffering his first defeat. But that wasn’t what made this an unusual night.

Early in the game, Oskar Sundqvist continued his unlucky 2018-19 by losing his edge and falling into an on-ice official, needing help off of the ice. Luckily, he would come back later in the game.

It wasn’t the only unusual reaction between a Blues player and someone other than an Islanders player, as a trainer helped a struggling Zach Sanford to the bench:

Here’s hoping Sanford ends up OK. David Perron extended his point streak to 12 games, but that’s about where the good news ended for St. Louis on Tuesday.

One more great highlight

Click here for that Hoffman goal. It was pretty ridiculous.

Also ridiculous: Hertl’s effort on this tally. The Czech winger grew up idolizing Jaromir Jagr, so it must have felt great to emulate number 68 in overpowering Evgeni Malkin on his way to this tremendous goal:

Apparently Hertl’s hat-trick goal pushed him to 100 career tallies. So not a bad consolation prize for Hertl.

Factoids

Another sign that, yes, scoring is way up this season.

The Islanders are the first team since the 2011-12 Flyers to have eight players score at least 10+ goals through 45 games.

PHT’s Scott Billeck notes that Laurent Brossoit’s 26 saves in the second period set a new Jets franchise record for saves in a single period. So, yeah, Brossoit has a strong argument for a three stars nod, along with quite a few others from a busy Tuesday.

Scores

NYI 2 – STL 1 (OT)
NYR 6 – CAR 2
CBJ 4 – NJD 1
MTL 5 – FLA 1
DET 3 – ANA 1
NSH 7 – WSH 2
MIN 3 – LAK 2 (SO)
WPG 4 – VGK 1
TBL 2 – DAL 0
SJS 5 – PIT 2

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.

Where do ‘fragile’ Blues go from here?

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It’s been quite a week for the St. Louis Blues. Let’s recap:

• After being booed off of their home ice following a 6-1 thrashing by the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday, Brayden Schenn labels the team “a fragile group,” three days after interim head coach Craig Berube did the same.

• Superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko apologized afterward for the team’s poor play at Enterprise Center, which has seen one Blues victory there since Nov. 11 (1-4-1).

• With tensions high around the team, forward Zach Sanford and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo let some emotions out and engaged in a bit of a scrap during Monday’s practice.

This isn’t the spark that general manager Doug Armstrong envisioned for his team when he fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Berube. A 3-5-1 record since the change hasn’t helped the Blues climb out of the bottom tier of the Western Conference standings.

Under Berube, the decline that began during Yeo’s time in charge has continued. Their goals per game is down from 2.95 to 2.44; goals allowed is up from 3.11 to 3.78 per game; and the power play went from a 24.2 percent success rate to 20.8 percent. Also, four of those six losses have been by three or more goals, so they’ve been busy fishing pucks out of their net.

Empty seats. Boos. The f-word thrown around. Apologies. Fights at practice. What’s got to change? From Berube’s perspective, nothing. He’s just going to keep hammering home his message until it gets through — if it ever does.

“The way out is the same thing we preach day in and day out,” he said. “You have to go into every game, no matter who you play, and you gotta be committed to giving 100 percent effort and compete as hard as you can, every game. … We’re going to keep at it, we’re going to keep pounding it in their heads until they get it. That’s it.”

What about Armstrong’s point of view? He built this team, which included a big trade to bring in Ryan O’Reilly over the summer. Following Yeo’s firing last month he said his patience with the Blues’ core players was at its “thinnest” and that they were the ones who needed to help get the team out of its funk.

Armstrong also added that there are only so many changes that can be made before that group gets torn apart.

“The core group’s equity that was built up is gone,” he said. “That’s what I have to say. I guess I could say it again that with the next head coach, if we’re having this same conversation, they’ll be players gone.”

(No wonder Alex Pietrangelo’s name popped up in trade rumors over the weekend.)

Speaking with the Post-Dispatch this week, Armstrong expressed his frustration at a lack of consistency in the Blues’ play and their inability to find another gear when needed. When adversity strikes, it snowballs and there isn’t enough resiliency in the group to fight back.

So where do the Blues go from here? Their already thin playoff hopes are hanging by a string and it doesn’t appear that a turnaround is going to happen thanks to some extended winning streak. Fourteen points back in the Central Division and 11 points out of a wild card spot, Armstrong will have some tough decisions to make in reshaping this roster going forward.

If his patience was already thin when he made a coaching change, what’s left nine games later when the move hasn’t shown itself to have made a positive impact?

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Blues host Oilers on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers at St. Louis Blues at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

The Edmonton Oilers experienced something they never want to endure again (at least for … 20 years?) on Monday: life without Connor McDavid. As you likely expected, it didn’t go well, as they lost 4-1 to the Dallas Stars.

McDavid is expected to play against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, however, so do you really need any other reason to tune in? You have seen the guy play, right?

Luckily, there are some other storylines to follow.

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Ken Hitchcock is still getting his bearings with his new team, the Oilers. He likely feels some sympathy for Craig Berube, who’s an in-season replacement in St. Louis, much like Hitchcock was — and then how Hitchcock left.

Vladimir Tarasenko vs. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl against Ryan O'Reilly, and Chief vs. Hitch. The Blues are in a very tough spot, while the Oilers’ playoff hopes are very much alive (yet by no means guaranteed), so this will be one to watch.

[EXTENDED PREVIEW]

What: Edmonton Oilers at St. Louis Blues
Where: Enterprise Center
When: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers – Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

OILERS

Alex Chiasson / Connor McDavid / Leon Draisaitl
Jujhar Khaira / Ryan Nugent-Hopkins / Jesse Puljujarvi
Milan Lucic / Kyle Brodziak / Zack Kassian
Ryan Spooner / Patrick Russell / Ty Rattie

Oscar Klefbom / Adam Larsson
Darnell Nurse / Kris Russell
Kevin Gravel / Matt Benning

Starting goalie: Cam Talbot

BLUES

Zach Sanford / Ryan O’Reilly / Robert Thomas
David Perron / Brayden Schenn / Jordan Kyrou
Patrick Maroon / Tyler Bozak / Vladimir Tarasenko
Jordan Nolan / Ivan Barbashev / Oskar Sundqvist

Joel Edmundson / Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn / Robert Bortuzzo
Jay Bouwmeester / Chris Butler

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.