Capitals F Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension upheld by Bettman

NEW YORK (AP) — Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension for an illegal check to an opponent’s head in a preseason game was upheld by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Thursday.

In a 31-page decision announced a week after Wilson’s nearly 7½-hour appeal hearing, Bettman determined that the initial ruling by the Department of Player Safety on Oct. 3 “was supported by clear and convincing evidence.”

The NHL Players’ Association appealed on Wilson’s behalf, arguing that his hit did not break a rule and so there should have been no suspension at all — but that if there were to be one, 20 games was “excessive” and eight would have been more appropriate.

The right winger, who plays on the reigning Stanley Cup champions’ top line with Alex Ovechkin, can now appeal to a neutral arbitrator.

Wilson was ejected for his hit on St. Louis Blues center Oskar Sundqvist in the second period of the teams’ exhibition game on Sept. 30, causing a concussion, cuts to the face and a sprained right shoulder.

Wilson’s fourth ban in less than 13 months is costing him nearly a quarter of the 82-game regular season — only five NHL players have been suspended longer for on-ice play — and $1.26 million in salary.

The video released earlier this month to explain the punishment says: “Wilson delivers a high, forceful hit, which makes Sundqvist’s head the main point of contact on a hit where such head contact was avoidable and causes an injury.” It also admonishes him for taking “a poor angle of approach.”

In the original ruling, the league noted that Wilson “is considered a repeat offender” — and, indeed, this is hardly the first time the sixth-year player has been in trouble for the way he has taken out an opponent. He was suspended twice because of preseason hits a year ago, then had to sit out three games during the playoffs for a check to the head that broke Pittsburgh Penguins center Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw and caused a concussion.

During its appeal, the NHLPA contested the characterization of Wilson as a repeat offender, saying that a preseason ban should be treated the same as a fine, and that his postseason ban’s duration was “improperly inflated” by “according more weight to the value of the playoff games missed due to a prior suspension.” The union also argued that if the hit was illegal, it was improper “by mere inches.”

Bettman ruled that Sundqvist’s head was the main point of contact and that such contact was avoidable on the play.

“Head checks are a matter of great concern to the league, our clubs and our players,” Bettman wrote.

The Capitals see Wilson as a vital part of the franchise, and general manager Brian MacLellan — who testified at the appeal hearing — signed him to a $31 million, six-year contract this offseason.

Coach Barry Trotz said he and his staff were surprised by the suspension but said that he does not feel the need to speak to Wilson about it. Trotz added that Wilson often studies which hits the NHL considers borderline and which hits the league considers clean.

“I think he understands,” Trotz said. “We were all a little surprised he got a couple of games, but we’ll accept it. He’s got to adjust. It’s no different than a centerman adjusting to the new faceoff rules or [Alex Ovechkin] adjusting on the slash rule. They are smart players and they will adjust. Tom is a really smart man and a good pro.”

That said, Trotz does not want the suspension to have a chilling effect on Wilson’s hard-hitting style of play. Over the past two seasons, Wilson has been credited with the fourth most hits in the league (492).

“You don’t want to take all of his game away from him,” he said. “He’s one of the best at getting on people and getting the big hits and turning pucks over and getting people nervous because he’s coming in. He doesn’t want to take that all out of his game. He just wants to understand his parameters and what the league is calling and looking for. But he’s got a smaller window” now.

Wilson doubled his career high with 14 goals and set a new mark with 35 points last season, when he was the only NHL forward with 30-plus points and 90-plus penalty minutes, finishing with 187 and a league-high 41 minors. Then he contributed 15 points in 21 games during Washington’s run to its first championship.