No doubting Thomas' NHL potential
Winger with rich hockey bloodlines is already revered as gifted goal-scorer
Wednesday, 07.13.2011 / 1:15 PM / Prospects Central
• Thomas in Running for World Juniors
• VIDEO: Thomas at Development Camp
• VIDEO: Thomas at 2011 Draft Party
• Your View: Could Thomas Reach NHL This Season?
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Christian Thomas has a "wow" shot.
In case you're wondering what a "wow" shot is, let Rangers legend Adam Graves explain.
"I used to say that when Brendan Shanahan would do his one-timer, he had about a 14-inch backswing. I used to call it the 'wow' shot, because when it comes off the stick, you just have to say wow," says Graves. "Christian's shot is more of a drag-snapper, but it's still one of those 'wow' shots, where the puck just rockets off his stick. I couldn't advise him on shooting any better than he already shoots."
Thomas, selected by the Rangers in the second round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has indeed been one of the great shooters in major-junior hockey over the past two seasons. He scored 41 goals and 66 points in 64 games with the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals in his draft year of 2009-10 before raising the bar into the stratosphere with 54 goals and 99 points in 66 games last season.
"His shot is tremendous. He can really rip the puck," said goaltender Scott Stajcer, a fellow Rangers prospect who played against Thomas multiple times over the past three OHL seasons. "He's got a pro-caliber shot, and it's one of the hardest I have ever seen. He is accurate with it, too, which is really good."
Thomas ended the 2010-11 regular season second in the OHL goal-scoring race and sixth overall in total points. He was even better in the playoffs -- leading the league with a remarkable 1.9 points per game. At the time his Oshawa team ended its playoff run in the second round, Thomas was dominating the postseason scoring race with nine goals and 10 assists over 10 games. He ended up only five points behind the eventual league leader, who posted 24 points in 22 games.
|Christian Thomas became the first Rangers draft pick in team history to return to the Ontario Hockey League after his draft year and reach the 50-goal mark. He and his dad, Steve, are the only father and son combination to each score 50 in the OHL.|
"When you look at the scoresheet every night and you see that he's got two or three, or even four goals, it's pretty exciting that he can do it with regularity," said Rangers Assistant General Manager Jeff Gorton. "He was so consistent. He never really had a dip."
It was a magical season for Thomas, who did not turn 19 until well after it was over. He started and ended with a bang -- scoring 15 points over his first seven games and 14 over his last six. In all, there were 28 multi-point games, four hat tricks, a four-goal game, two OHL Player of the Week honors, separate point streaks of six, seven and eight games, nine No. 1 star selections in the regular season, and two more in the playoffs.
"My major goal this year was to score 50 goals, which I reached, and our big goal as a team was to make the playoffs," said Thomas. "We had missed the playoffs for two years straight, so that was a big thing for us. I was just trying to be the best person on the ice -- whether I did that with points or whatever it took."
In one out of every three games he played, Thomas finished among the top three stars, but if there was a signature moment in his season, it came during a homestand on the weekend of Nov. 19-21. In a span of two games, Thomas erupted for three goals and three assists in a 10-3 win over Erie and then followed it up with two goals and two assists in a 7-4 victory over Barrie. He was the No. 1 star both nights, and his colossal 10-point weekend earned him CHL Player of the Week honors.
By reaching the 50-goal mark, Thomas joined Ryan Callahan as the only Rangers draft picks to achieve that feat during an OHL season. He also became the first Rangers OHL prospect ever to score 50 in his first season after being drafted by the Blueshirts.
"I would say I'm a goal-scorer. After the last two years in the OHL, I feel like I'm pretty good at finding the back of the net," Thomas said. "My shot is one of my biggest things, and hopefully that can translate to the NHL level and I can still score goals there."
Those 54 goals also gave Thomas a unique place in hockey history. His father, former NHL star Steve Thomas, had scored 51 goals with the Toronto Marlboros in 1983-84, making the Thomas duo -- both right wings -- the first father-son 50-goal-scorers in OHL's 80 seasons.
Looking back on the 2010 draft, it is stunning to see that a player with Thomas' draft-year statistics and remarkable hockey bloodlines was still available at No. 40 overall. There was only one knock on him, and that was his 5-foot-9, 164-pound frame. Size should hardly have been an issue in the first place, but Thomas has already put it behind him by adding several pounds during the past season and displaying the strength needed to play at hockey's highest level.
"He's a big man in the way he plays -- taking it wide even if he knows he's going to get pinched off," said Graves, who has watched Thomas as part of his Hockey and Business Operations role that includes working with Rangers prospects. "He already looks like he's getting thicker and getting man-strength. I'm reminded of Brandon Dubinsky, when he was younger. Brandon used to get knocked down when he was younger, but he's man-strong now and guys bounce off of him."
|Although he was one of the Rangers best players and saw time on the No. 1 line, Christian Thomas admitted to being nervous when he played for the Rangers prospects' team at Traverse City, Mich., last September. With more confidence this year he hopes to be one of the event's dominant players.|
"When you have to go get a puck against some pretty big boys, there are a lot of guys that just aren't willing to pay that price," said Clark. "There were a lot of times when he just beat the people to the puck, but there were also times when it was going to be even, and he knew he was going to get cranked. In those situations, he just went straight ahead and he took the big hit to make the play. That's obviously going to be a major issue when he turns pro -- whether he is willing to do that -- and it's a natural thing for Christian to do."
Even in Thomas' draft year, Gorton said Rangers scouts were confident that his game would translate to the NHL.
"We drafted him as a scorer," said Gorton. "There is obviously concern over guys that size as to whether they can do it at the next level. But the things that we looked at when were scouting him were first, his speed. He's got great speed and then, second, you can look at his shot and release. His shot and release are NHL-level already. They were NHL-level when he was a 16-year-old kid. And, third, the fact that he goes into areas where you need to be to score goals. When you add up those three things it was enough for us to look past his size and buy into the kid's heart and his ability. So it was a pretty easy pick for us where we took him."
While Thomas' shot gets all the attention, his speed might put him over the top as a pro.
"Christian is very quick and jumping into holes and transitioning," said Graves. "He is very quick at getting to full speed, and I think his skating actually improved in the past year. His quickness from a standstill is excellent."
In his first Prospect Development Camp after the draft, Thomas admitted to being a bit nervous. Late last month, he returned to the MSG Training Center for the camp and dominated offensively, scoring in three straight scrimmages and setting up numerous other goals. In the scrimmages, he continued to show no difficulty adapting to a faster pace -- just as he had done in the 2010 Traverse City Prospects Tournament.
Thomas certainly made his presence felt as the youngest player on the Rangers prospects team last September in Michigan. He scored on a memorable drive from the blue line in the opening win over Columbus, and was denied by a highlight-reel save on a breakaway in the team's second game against Carolina. Bumped up to the top line for Game 3 against Minnesota, he skated at right wing alongside Derek Stepan before returning to the second line in the tournament-closing 7-2 win over Dallas.
|Christian Thomas surveys the scene at the Rangers' 2011 Prospect Development Camp at the MSG Training Center. He emerged as one of the camp's top players with goals in three straight scrimmages.|
The other great Traverse City highlight for Thomas was a chance to play in front of his father, who had just begun working as a Player Development Consultant with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"He has helped me with everything in my career so far, especially after I was drafted and went to the camp and everything throughout the summer," Thomas said of his father. "He has been trying to help me eat proper and giving me tips on what I can do better in the gym, even though I also have a trainer. From on the ice and off the ice, he always has tips and tells me about what he went through. He's always trying to help me out."
After Traverse City, Thomas spent a few days with the Rangers veterans at the team's main training camp -- an experience that helped set the tone for his big 2010-11 season.
"I got to see how much better the players were at Traverse City, and getting to play with those NHL guys at the main camp was huge," he said. "Seeing what it takes to make the team and how much better you have to be. Getting used to that style of game and, especially in Traverse City how fast-paced the games were, that kind of slowed down the game in the OHL and I felt like I had more time. It was a bit easier, but you still have to work really hard."
When he returns to Traverse City this fall, Thomas will have a chance to be the sort of breakout player that Stepan was last year. He has seen firsthand how a strong performance in the prospects' tournament can go a long way toward landing a young player on the Rangers' opening-night roster.
Because he will only be 19, Thomas must either play for the Rangers or return to major-junior next season. He is determined to make it the NHL option, since he has already proven so much in the OHL.
"Last year, I was very nervous at the rookie camp, Traverse city, and main camp because I didn't really know what to expect," said Thomas. "This year, I'm going to be more confident, less nervous and try to give it all I got and see what happens."
Graves suspects Thomas' play might force the Rangers coaching staff into giving him the sort of long look that Stepan enjoyed during last year's training camp.
"After the season he had last year, I think he can come into training camp and make a statement," said Graves. "Knowing his character, he is going to have a big summer as far as conditioning and getting prepared."
Gorton also looks forward to seeing what Thomas will show at Traverse City and training camp.
|Christian Thomas signs an autograph for a Rangers fan at the team's 2011 Draft Viewing Party. Thomas can get used to signing for the Garden Faithful if his NHL career follows the script from his years in junior.
Should he return to Oshawa, Thomas would gain valuable experience as the go-to guy on a Generals team that shaping up as a Memorial Cup contender. And since winning at one level often breeds more success at the next, having the opportunity to lead a team to the championship could increase his potential to thrive in the pro game.
"Anytime you score 63 total goals, when you go back the next year, nobody's looking for 35. So there would be that pressure and that's all part of the development that will be good for him," said Gorton. "He had the pressure this year, too. He was a 40-goal scorer, but they needed more and he did it. And he did it with the best defensemen and the best checking forwards on him. And then you look at Oshawa and what they have built up there as a program whatever way it works out, I'm sure he will be fine and handle it the best way. But there will be pressure either way, and I'm sure he's coming to our camp ready to make a statement. It should be exciting to see where it all goes."
In 2011-12 Thomas might also have a chance to play on Team Canada at the World Junior Championship tournament. Last month, he was one of 26 forwards invited to the Canadian National Junior Team Summer Development Camp.
"That's a huge goal for me if I have a chance to crack that team," Thomas said of the World Junior opportunity. "It's huge here in Canada. Everyone watches, and everyone watches worldwide. It would just be great exposure."
This past season, another 2010 draft pick from the OHL, Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, won the NHL's Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year after scoring 31 goals and 63 points in 82 games. Thomas reminds many scouts of Skinner, and Skinner's instant success at the NHL level bodes well for him, too.
"He's a smaller guy, and he's a goal-scorer," Thomas said of Skinner, a friend since their shared minor-hockey days in the Toronto area." I felt like this year I put the same amount of work into the OHL as he did last year. Hopefully, I can send an impression to the Rangers that I can maybe step up like he did in the next couple of years. It's good to see a guy like that make it."
Thomas has another big advantage in his quest for a long-term home in the NHL, because his father made it through 1,235 regular-season and 174 postseason games. Steve Thomas played in 20 NHL seasons for seven NHL teams -- a run that included two 40-goal seasons and 421 career goals.
"I got to watch my dad growing up and see how hard he worked," said Thomas. "And what he did on the ice and off the ice to prepare for games. Everything, including eating and sleeping. He has helped so much, and he just keeps telling me what to do and how hard it is to make it. ... I try to watch as much NHL hockey as I can, especially some right wingers. I like to see what they do and how they play and how they stay in the NHL."
"His dad has played a huge role in his development. I know from playing against him. He came to play, and his son is just like that." said Graves. "I'm a big believer in Christian. First of all, he is a super nice respectful young man. It begins with that. He's a kid that loves the game. He comes to the rink every day with a smile on his face, and he practices as hard as he plays."
And then, there is that "wow" shot, which Graves just can't seem to stop talking about.
"His shot is as good a shot as I have seen in a long, long time," said Graves. "Inside the top of the circles, he has a special shot. He knows where it's going and he can move it and he can change the angle on a goalie in a hurry. When the goalie is looking at him, he can change the angle because he drags the puck with equal amount of zip. I used to have to bring the puck in tight to my body where I had all my strength to change the angle like that, but by just movement of his stick and his sense of scoring, Christian is very good at changing the angle on the goalie."
At least one former OHL goalie can attest to that. Stajcer knows all about Thomas' ability and says it's one reason he hopes they will be Rangers teammates in the years to come.
"It would be nice to not have to face his shot in the NHL," said Stajcer.