Tom Wilson (left) takes on buddy Wayne Simmonds (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Washington Capitals slugger is preparing to take on more of an offensive role this season and Joel Ward is a role model. But he has also learned lessons from Wayne Simmonds, his Flyers rival and frequent dance partner.
Summertime in the hockey world means foes become friends again. For Washington's Tom Wilson, it means getting reacquainted with Wayne Simmonds, his on-ice rival from Philadelphia, but also a player who means a lot to the Capitals youngster.
“He’s actually kinda been a mentor," Wilson said. "I’ve worked out with him for five or six summers now and he was really good when I was a young guy, showing me the ropes. Then you get in to playing against each other and we both play a certain way. Emotions get high. We respect each other a ton because you’ll step up and do that for your team.”
Wilson has already fought Simmonds twice in the NHL, while other scraps have broken out while the two were on the ice together. They're both at BioSteel camp in Toronto this week and while the other guys in the dressing room try to stir the pot about the battles fought by the pair, summer is a time for peace. Heck, Ray Emery had been with Wilson at past BioSteel camps and even his infamous fight with Caps goalie Braden Holtby can be put into context in the off-season.
"Yeah, he got the upper hand on Holts in that fight," Wilson said. "But the hockey community is small and that’s what we love about each other: You’ll go at it and fight and do whatever you can to help your team, then in the summer everyone’s friends and pushes each other in the gym to get better.”
Wilson recognizes that Washington and Philly fans probably don't want to hear about how he and Simmonds are good pals off the ice, but role models are important for young players and Simmonds has always been there for him. Another player who has meant a lot to the Capitals power forward is Joel Ward, his former teammate.
As the Washington Post's Isabelle Khurshudyan reported earlier in the summer, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan wants to see Wilson used as more of a net-front presence this season, hoping to unlock the first-rounder's offensive potential. Ward used to be that guy in Washington and the Caps have missed him.
“I was fortunate enough to watch Wardo," Wilson said. "He was awesome. When I was a 19-year-old kid, he brought me under his wing and helped me out a ton. I played with Ovie and Backie, then got sent down to the third or fourth line and he went up, so I could watch what he was doing better. He’s so good at what he does. He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s so effective. Good on the walls, good in front of the net. Another great role model. In the playoffs, watching the little things he does, where he goes on the ice – that can definitely help my game.”
For Wilson, that means playing more measured hockey. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound right winger characterizes his style as flying around the ice at 110 mph. But when he was observing Ward, he saw a smart player who was strategic in going to the net.
“The big thing is being in the right spots at the right time," Wilson said. "And when you get the puck, make sure you put it in the net. He generally does.”
The Capitals are in their Stanley Cup window right now and more offense from Wilson – the dirty kind of offense you need when the pretty goals aren't coming – would be huge. Washington may have to go through Simmonds and the Flyers again in the post-season, while Ward's San Jose Sharks also loom out in the West.
No doubt Wilson will still try to run through Simmonds and Ward if the Cup is on the other side, but both veterans would understand. They just might wait until the summer to tell him that.