The warning signs around Tom Wilson’s new contract with the Washington Capitals

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      That was my Inspector Gadget reaction to Tom Wilson’s seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension that was announced by the Washington Capitals Friday morning.

      Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. I love the way Wilson plays. He’s one of the last true power forwards remaining in the National Hockey League. Wilson can beat you with or without his gloves on. And he’s always a threat to any opponent casually skating through the middle of the ice.

      He may be known for his physicality – and willingness to toe the line of legality – but Wilson can bury the puck. He’s been a 20-goal scorer three times during his 10-year NHL career. Over the course of an 82-game schedule, the Washington forward should be a routine 50 point producer.

      Bottom line: Wilson is a weapon. And he’s been a great player for the Capitals over the course of 680 regular season games. WIlson was an integral part of Washington’s Stanley Cup Championship in 2018 and has featured in 83 postseason tilts.

      After signing the extension, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan waxed poetic about Wilson, stating “Tom possesses all the intangibles needed to win in this League, and we are extremely pleased to sign him to a long-term contract, giving him the opportunity to finish his career in a Capitals’ uniform.”

      That’s all good and well, and I understand MacLellan’s sentiment. Washington’s GM chose to reward a foundational piece of his team for the long haul. But the bruising forward from Toronto is going to be 30 years old when his extension kicks in during the 2024-25 season. The two sides are married for another eight seasons. Wilson will be 37 years old when his contract expires.

      I want to be very clear: I think Wilson has earned every penny of his new deal. He’s been a warrior for the Caps, and at times, the team’s nuclear deterrent. There’s a tangible effect on the opposition when he’s in the lineup. I’d want him on my team eight days a week.

      But my gut feeling is that even though Wilson’s $6.5 million AAV will become reasonable in the next few years as the NHL’s salary cap increases, the contract will become onerous to the Capitals.

      Why? I have several reasons. The first is that the NHL isn’t slowing down any time soon. The game continues to speed up, and while Wilson has been able to adapt and continue to produce, will that continue into his mid-thirties?

      Maybe his teammate, Alex Ovechkin, has given the Capitals false hope in this area. At 37 years old, Washington’s top sniper is still filling the net to the tune of 40-50 tucks a year. But let’s face it: Ovi might be a cyborg. He’s been one of the NHL’s most durable players over the course of his career, and his goal production has been freakishly consistent.

      Wilson, on the other hand, has battled injuries off and on for the better part of six seasons, including an ACL tear during the 2022-23 campaign that limited him to just 33 games. And given the heavy style he plays, I have a hard time believing Wilson will suddenly be able to reverse that trend.

      Yes, the team does know the player better than anyone. And what that really means is the Capitals athletic trainers are well aware of Wilson’s situation. I’d have to imagine MacLellan consulted with them extensively. The doctors must have given a big thumbs up in favor of Wilson’s ability to stay in the lineup.

      But I’ve seen this before. Remember David Backes?

      Backes was a damn good leader and player. I have so much respect for him. Through hard work and determination, he earned the captaincy of the St. Louis Blues. But Backes chose to leave for a better contract with the Boston Bruins in 2018.

      Ironically, St. Louis beat the Bruins in the 2019 Stanley Cup finals. But that season was the start of Backes’ decline. His production tumbled as his body succumbed to years of hard miles. The Bruins even made Backes a healthy scratch for the last three contests of the seven-game Stanley Cup final against the Blues. Granted, Backes was 32 when he signed the five-year, $6 million AAV deal with Boston. But I see so many similarities to Wilson.

      In the final two years of his contract, Backes only appeared in 37 games. His rough-and-tumble, decidedly old-school style came at a cost. The same cost that I think Wilson will end up paying sooner rather than later. And the Capitals are going to be on the hook for it.

      Obviously, I’m going off gut reaction. But I think the Capitals really stretched on this deal, caving in on Wilson’s intangibles rather than comparables around the NHL. Washington even has an in-house example with 36-year-old T.J. Oshie, who’s missed significant time over the past two seasons and seen his point production lag.

      While I value continuity in the locker room as much as anyone, I think locking in eight more seasons with Wilson was a huge gamble for MacLellan. Four years? Sure. I would have made that contract in a heartbeat. But what’s also a little nutty is that Wilson has a modified no-trade clause throughout his new deal. This means the AAV is probably lower than it could have been without them.

      Make no mistake. It’s a fantastic contract for Wilson. One that carries zero risk. Even if he gets bought out down the road, it extends his earning years. And after already making tens of millions of dollars, a buyout would be much easier to accept.

      No doubt MacLellan is going to take some heat for Wilson’s extension. It’s a big bet. But Wilson is a core piece of the Capitals. Clearly, the team feels he is exactly the type of player that can carry the franchise to another Stanley Cup championship. 

      Ultimately, the value of Wilson’s new contract might be determined by how he – and the Capitals – perform in the postseason. But the team has to get there first.

      Hopefully, I’m wrong. Hopefully, Caps fans can look back eight years from now and view Wilson’s contract favorably. But to me, it feels like just about every warning sign was ignored.

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