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It’s not time to relitigate Tom Wilson’s value or dunk on how absurd his contract is.
You knew it would be bad, obviously.
Based on the way everyone had been talking about Wilson throughout this season and into the summer, there was absolutely no way the Washington Capitals weren’t going to dramatically overpay for the his services.
Make no mistake, Wilson is widely understood to be a low-scoring right wing who earns his living through mysticism; no one would argue that a guy like this — whose career high playing first-line minutes with two elite forwards is only 35 points — is worth $5.16 million against the cap over six years. He had solid enough underlying numbers last season in his, ahem, breakout year but there’s no real way to determine if that’s just because the Caps were one of the worst possession teams in the league and he got to play with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Which, one suspects, is why this player chose not to file for arbitration despite having the collectively-bargained right to do so. Any reasonable arbitrator would look at all the numbers and hear all the arguments for and against and say this is a player who is worth, at most, about $4 million a year, and that’s if you’re being extremely generous. Of course, in an arbitration case, it would have been in Brian MacLellan’s best interest to point out all the things Wilson’s detractors love to point out, to highlight why there’s no way he’s worth anything close to the number he got. And MacLellan would have been right to do it: This is an insane contract that doesn’t even begin to make sense.
So in a way, the Capitals were bidding against themselves and in doing so became deluded to the point that they think this is the kind of guy they “need” in order to be successful. After all, they won the Stanley Cup with him, right?
But the extent to which the local media has waved the pom poms for this player is telling; the Washington Post headline points out that Wilson is a “popular” player, because it couldn’t reasonably say he’s a good player. Even his biggest advocates will say that what he provides is intangible. MacLellan called him a “unique player” in announcing the deal, because he also couldn’t say Wilson is a particularly good scorer; last season in his breakout year, Wilson scored fewer goals than mediocre second-liner Tanner Pearson and fewer points than defenseman Nate Schmidt.
There are plenty of geniuses who will say, “Ah well you haven’t been in the corner with him” and I know that’s true because I haven’t suffered multiple severe concussions. Which, by the way, that only further hurts his value to the Caps, because for every game he’s suspended and every minute he’s in the penalty box, that’s just dead cap space providing negative value, and he gets suspended and penalized a lot.
The problem with paying a lot of money for intangibles in a cap league is that the money you give him is very tangible and really limits your flexibility going forward. So the question isn’t really whether Wilson is worth this money — he absolutely is not — but rather what the Capitals hope to accomplish in the next few seasons with Wilson locked in at this silly price point.
Because again, the Caps weren’t that good this past season and really PDOed their way into their playoff position (though few will discuss this) and finally got all the postseason bounces to go their way after years of having rather the opposite happen despite being a really good team. And they got another great season from Ovechkin despite the fact that he’s in his early 30s, as well as career years from Kuznetsov and John Carlson — and yeah okay, even a career year from Wilson.
When things all come together like that, as they did for, say, the Boston Bruins in 2011, it becomes easy to enamor yourself of various players. That’s why John Carlson just got overpaid. That’s why Wilson just got overpaid. That’s why the Caps brought back Brooks Orpik as a “glue guy” after trading him so he could be bought out in Colorado. The idea that you’d let these guys walk or try to play hardball with a guy like Wilson, whose rights you controlled for years to come, would have been a non-starter to MacLellan. And his job is to be a good steward for this team in the short-term, because even Cup-winning GMs probably don’t have the luxury of thinking long-term.
But really really really really, the Caps need to be thinking long-term with this club. How many useful years do you reasonably have left from Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen? What do those Nick Backstrom and Braden Holtby extensions cost you in two years? Was Holtby’s bad year a bump in the road that will be avoided going forward? How much can you really expect the cap to go up to give you flexibility there? The answer to most those questions probably aren’t all that positive from the Caps’ perspective: “not many,” “a whole lot,” “probably” (the one positive), and “not enough.”
Let’s put it this way: The Caps have put up at least 100 points (or equivalent pace) in eight of the last 11 seasons and often blew past that number. They have three seasons of at least 118 points in that time. To think that the Capitals are facing a future in which they simply can’t keep up that level of performance on a consistent basis is not crazy. I’m not joking when I say this is the Caps in midlife crisis mode; the Wilson contract is the “buying a canary yellow convertible” of running an NHL team.
The Caps are, like an early-decline Chicago, a team facing the mortality of sport, and they, too, are not handling it well, except to say that yeah they just won a Cup. The bad times aren’t that far off. And while Washington has enough young-ish impact players — Kuznetsov is 26, Burakovsky 23, Orlov 27, Holtby 28 — to keep this going for another season or three, their ability to supplement their existing talent and replace production from guys who are aging quickly is going to be hamstrung by contracts like Wilson’s, like Carlson’s, and like Oshie’s.
Whether he realizes it or not, MacLellan is banking on people not noticing these problems because of that Cup win. You’re a champion forever, I guess.
There doesn’t seem to be any real cogent long-term plan here. Hard times are coming sooner than later and overpaying for every player on the roster after winning a title is how empires fall in this league.
Wilson isn’t the problem, he’s a symptom of it. But he is a particularly bad symptom.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: It’s a nice little contract for Brandon Montour and he’s one of those guys where it looks like the classic “bridge deal” will probably be good for all involved.
Arizona Coyotes: Yeah it turns out shying away from elite talent because they’re undersized isn’t a good idea.
Boston Bruins: I mean I personally wouldn’t want to pretend to be Jeremy Jacobs but hey, you do you.
Buffalo Sabres: Often when you have to be assured that a guy is “more than just an agitator” it’s a pretty safe bet that no he isn’t.
Calgary Flames: If the Flames don’t put Neal with Gaudreau and Monahan, that’s a borderline-fireable offense.
Carolina Hurricanes: If you really think about it, that Jordan Staal deal was a pretty good one for Carolina. Brandon Sutter isn’t good, Brian Dumoulin became pretty good but the Hurricanes have a million defensemen, and Derrick Pouliot was a middle-of-the-pack defender for Vancouver last year. Not sure where the anti-Staal sentiment is coming from.
Chicago: Yes it is.
Colorado Avalanche: This was an interesting transaction insofar as Logan O’Connor doesn’t really have the profile of a guy you need to be in a big hurry to sign.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Why make a big thing out of having all these third jerseys if a bunch of them are just gonna be the same thirds as before?
Dallas Stars: Hey sure, Mattias Janmark on a one-year deal. Okay.
Detroit Red Wings: The question in this headline is a very important one to ask.
Edmonton Oilers: Imagine your job is to make the Oilers better on the ice. Yikes. No thanks.
Florida Panthers: Ah don’t be too hard on them. The 2000 entry draft was really bad for a lot of teams.
Los Angeles Kings: This is pretty cool, I guess.
Minnesota Wild: Didn’t get a chance to write a Jason Zucker take last week but I’m interested to see how this one plays out long-term. I could really see it going either way.
Montreal Canadiens: This headline? Too easy. Next.
Nashville Predators: Doesn’t seem like this is particularly fair but okay.
New Jersey Devils: Hmm, yes, I have to agree.
New York Islanders: Just keep telling yourself that.
New York Rangers: That seems like maybe a little too much money for Brady Skjei given his production but when you’re tanking you usually gotta overpay some people, so I’m not super-worried about it.
Ottawa Senators: There’s lots of stuff the Senators “should” do that they of course will not do. Add this to the pile.
Philadelphia Flyers: Black third jerseys. I thought we were done with that.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Hard not to see the Pens as the favorites in the Metro if they can get passable goaltending from Matt Murray again. Who would be better barring a PDO bender?
San Jose Sharks: Has it really been called the “SAP Center at San Jose” this whole time? Mighty Ducks of Anaheim much?
St. Louis Blues: Yeah it’s tough to disagree with this premise.
Tampa Bay Lightning: It’s probably bad news for the rest of the league that the Bolts also continue to excel when it comes to developing players.
Toronto Maple Leafs: C’mon with this.
Vancouver Canucks: File under “no kidding.”
Vegas Golden Knights: This is what I meant about Vegas not getting the benefit of the doubt now because they had that outsized, unsustainable success in Year 1. They added Paul Stastny! He’s good!
Winnipeg Jets: What if merely being big isn’t all you need to do to be good at hockey? Hmm.
Gold Star Award
I saw some stuff this weekend about, like, “What if Tom Wilson starts scoring 20-plus goals regularly? Then he’ll be worth that contract.” First of all, probably not, second of all, he just set a career high at 14. I dunno how much more runway the guy has here.
Minus of the Weekend
Imagine being the kind of Caps fan who has to say that stuff to yourself. No thank you.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “DominicBoltsFan” is a Bolts fan.
Trouba for Johnson+Raddysh+2nd
You know, I went to the McDonald’s in Shelbyville on Friday night.
All stats via Corsica unless noted otherwise. Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.