It’s perhaps the most sought-after commodity in the NHL. Perhaps even more so than a right handed shooting defenseman. A big physical Winger who can score goals, skate, hit and drop the gloves whenever necessary. It’s why Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals was drafted in the first round of the NHL entry draft even though he didn’t have overwhelming numbers while playing in juniors. It wasn’t until his last year of Junior Hockey that he averaged over a point per game.
It would be close to impossible for another team to pry Wilson away from the Capitals. He is just that valuable because of the total package that he brings to the table. And that package was on full display on Wednesday night against the Flyers. He had an assist and went 2-0 in fights against Nate Thompson and Robert Haag.
Over the last couple of years, the Flyers have become a bigger, more physical team by adding the likes of Kevin Hayes Tyler Pitlick, Phil Meyers, Travis Sanheim and when healthy Nolan Patrick. They have also become a tougher team to play against by adding pests like Travis Konecny and Nicholas Aube-Kubel.
And on Wednesday night they responded the way you would want them to respond. Even though they lost both fights to Wilson, they stood up for themselves and prevailed in that game.
That being said, even though they are a bigger, more physical, and tougher team to play against, and even though they prevailed in Wednesday night’s game, the way Tom Wilson ragdolled both Nate Thompson and Robert Haag was somewhat disconcerting. Thompson was very much an unwilling combatant. To his credit, Haag hung in there at first, landing two good left hands but, after Wilson landed a solid right to the jaw, it was a one-sided affair for Wilson.
Even though the Flyers prevailed on Wednesday, one wonders how the Flyers would deal with Wilson over the course of a seven-game series if the two teams were to meet in the playoffs. Wilson, who stands at 6’4 and weighs in at 220 pounds, could exact a physical toll on the Flyers over the course of a seven game series.
When you look at the Flyers roster, who exactly do they have that would be able to stand up to Wilson? Kevin Hayes is 6’5 216 but he isn’t a fighter. Plus Washington would take that exchange every day of the week. They would love nothing better than to get a skilled player like Hayes off of the ice in exchange for Wilson. Nicholas Aube-Kubel is a scrappy player who is willing to drop the gloves but, he is 5’11 196 so he wouldn’t really be a match for Wilson.
It’s true that fighting is not anywhere near as big a part of the game of hockey as it used to be. And it plays even less of a role in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But fighting and overall team toughness and physicality is still a big part of the game.
One needs to look no further than last night’s game between the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. This was a statement game for the Lightning that went deeper than their 5-3 victory. Last year the Lightning won the Presidents Trophy with 128 points. They were a heavy favorite to at the very least get to the Stanley Cup finals. But they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by a Columbus Blue Jackets team that man handled them physically.
The Lightning were heavily criticized as a team that was too soft and too easy to play against. They were a team that had no pushback while being swept by the Blue Jackets. Their response was to go out and get 6’6 240 pound Patrick Maroon. The result is that they are now a harder team to play against. Maroon gives the Lightning an element of toughness and physicality that they didn’t have last year.
The transformation of the Lightning wasn’t just a matter of acquiring Maroon though. The team as a whole has decided that they won’t get pushed around anymore. During a brawl that broke out in the second period of last night’s game against the Bruins, players like Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Kilhorn and Erik Cernak were all involved. And when big bad Zdeno Chara started to smack people around, the Lightning had Maroon to step in and put a stop to that.
The Flyers don’t have a Patrick Maroon to stand up to the likes of a Zdeno Chara or a Tom Wilson. And this isn’t to suggest that they need to go out and get an enforcer. The enforcer is a dying breed in the NHL. Today’s NHL is more a game of speed and skill. But you still need to have guys that can play a heavy game. The failure of the Lightning in last year’s playoffs, a team that was all speed and skill, and the success of the Saint Louis Blues, a big heavy team that won the Stanley Cup, is proof of that.
Like I had mentioned before, the Flyers have acquired some players who can play that heavy game. But they seem to lack that one guy who while he can play and contribute to the team, he also has that element of nastiness that will keep other teams honest.
Wade Allison could be that guy. He is 6’2 205 and has a big enough frame where he can add another 10 or 15 pounds of good muscle. He is a very good skater for his size and he has a lethal wrist shot. He is also an underrated playmaker. In 2017-18 while playing at Western Michigan before sustaining a knee injury, Allison scored 15 goals and 15 assists for 30 points in only 22 games. He also racked up 29 penalty minutes and was a + 7. He was also a finalist for the hobey baker trophy awarded to the best college hockey player each year.
Perhaps just as important, Allison plays with an edge to his game. I witnessed this personally when watching Western Michigan take on Air Force in the NCAA hockey tournament in 2018. Western Michigan was about ready to lose to a team they were heavily favored against. Out of frustration, Allison rammed one of the Air Force players into the boards, which knocked the player out and caused Allison to receive a 10-minute game misconduct for his efforts.
Obviously you don’t want a player that is undisciplined and who will take bad penalties that can cost your team games. But, there are a lot of things to like about that play. Number one, the outcome of the game had already been decided. So it didn’t cost Western Michigan in any way. Number two, the fact that he was that frustrated to do what he did shows that he truly cares about winning and losing. Number three, when teams see a player that plays on the edge the way that Allison does, it causes them to take notice and realize that they could be his next victim if they push him too far.
Players like Tom Wilson and Wade Allison are always playing on the edge. They have to walk that fine line between being an intimidating force while at the same time not going too far so as to cost your team hockey games. Even when they do cross the line though, it serves a purpose. It keeps teams from taking liberties with your best players. And that in turn gives your skill players more time and space on the ice.
Wade Allison could be the Flyers version of Tom Wilson. He could be that final piece to the puzzle. Like Wilson, he is a big physical Force that can also contribute offensively. And he would be a guy who would keep somebody like a Tom Wilson from constantly trying to steamroll your best players during a seven-game playoff series. Alison is by no means a heavyweight when it comes to the fight game. But I have seen him fight several times during his Junior career and he can more than handle himself. If Allison were in the lineup on Wednesday night , he would have been a willing combatant with Wilson and could have more than held his own in a fight with him. With Allison in the lineup, the Flyers would have somebody to deter Wilson from constantly running at their skill players. They don’t have that now.
Allison could be the final piece for one more reason. He would be a big physical winger who can score and play on your third line. The Flyers would be that much more of a dangerous team by having that kind of scoring punch in their bottom six. He could also be a net front presence with good hands on your second power play unit. He would basically be a younger version of what you had in Wayne Simmonds before he was traded.
Tyler Pitlick is a really nice player and he is a coach’s dream. He might be the Flyers most consistent player. He brings his A-game just about every night and he is probably their best forechecker. But he is limited offensively as his 8-12-20 stat line shows. He is also 28 years old and will be a free agent at the end of the year.
Wade Allison can give you everything that Pitlick does and more. It wouldn’t be without risk though. Allison has battled injuries his last two years at Western Michigan. There is precedent though when it comes to young players who struggled with injuries at the beginning of their career but recovered and wound up staying healthy for most of their careers. Justin Williams was a player who was constantly struggling with injuries when he first came into the NHL. Now he is one of the more durable players in the league. Also with young players, you never know how long it’s going to take them to adjust to the NHL game or even if they are definitely going to turn into solid NHL players.
But, if you want to take that next step forward as a team and an organization, you have to move forward from the safety net of a solid veteran player who is limited to a young player with more upside but where there is an inherent risk. The Flyers are not where they are right now if they didn’t do that with young prospects such as Ivan Provorov, Carter Hart, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Sanheim, Travis Konecny, Nicholas Aube-Kubel and Phil Meyers.
The Flyers have drastically improved over the last couple of years in areas that needed improvement . They got bigger up the middle and on their back end with additions such as Kevin Hayes, Nolan Patrick, Travis Sanheim and Phil Meyers. They stabilized a young defense Corps with the additions of Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun. They made themselves a tougher team to play against by adding gritty, sand paper type guys like Travis Konecny and Nicholas Aube-Kubel. And they finally have a legit number one goaltender in Carter Hart.
Wade Allison could be the guy that brings it all together because he improves the team in several different areas. He gives you more goal-scoring depth, more skill, more abrasiveness and more toughness all-in-one player. He very well could be the final piece of the puzzle.