By Bob Crawford
Although the Connecticut Whale haven’t exactly torn the AHL up in the first month of the season, the club has posted some quality wins, and has given some key development time to several very young, but very important, New York Ranger organizational assets.
In addition to first-round picks Chris Kreider (2009) and J.T. Miller (2011), the Whale are also breaking in 2010 Ranger second-round pick Christian Thomas. Thomas, a 20-year-old native of Toronto, boasts both an outstanding Junior hockey resume, which includes a 54-goal season and 257 career points in 244 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals and London Knights, and great hockey bloodlines. Thomas’ dad, Steve Thomas, was a 19-year mainstay in the NHL who scored over 400 goals, and racked up better than 900 points, in 1,235 games with Toronto, Chicago, the Islanders, New Jersey, Anaheim and Detroit.
Despite the tantalizing combination of past accomplishments and genetics, Christian Thomas, like so many other former Junior stars, ran into some tough sledding at the start of his AHL career, which began with five regular season and six playoff games with the Whale at the end of his OHL season last spring. He managed a goal and an assist in that action, and then was held to one goal in his first five outings this year. Starting with a 3-1 Connecticut win over Hershey October 26, though, Thomas reeled off a four-game point-scoring streak, and then had his first multiple-goal game in the pro ranks November 10 in Worcester, scoring a pair of power-play markers in a 6-2 win over the Sharks.
That game at the DCU Center was not only a big one for Thomas personally, but also for the Whale as a team, being that it came on the heels of back-to-back losses to the Springfield Falcons, a 2-0 blanking the night before and a humiliating 10-2 pounding the previous Sunday at home. And Thomas preferred to reflect on his personal strong performance in team terms.
“It was definitely a great feeling to get two (goals),” he said, “but our team played great after two tough losses.
“It’s definitely embarrassing to lose 10-2, especially in the American Hockey League, but playing them on the Friday there and losing 2-0, we played a lot better. We just got in a bit of penalty trouble and they capitalized twice on the power play, but I felt like we played a better game. And then it translated into (the Worcester game), and we had a way better game and we took it to them.”
The two lamplighters in Worcester were the first two man-advantage goals for Thomas as a pro, and they came after he was tabbed to man one of the points on the Whale’s first power-play unit. While the multiple challenges of being back on the point represent a major responsibility for a 20-year-old rookie, Thomas clearly was unfazed.
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“I played the point on the power play in Junior for two years,” he said, “so it was kind of reminding me of that, and I just felt, play good defensively and try to get some chances offensively and I’ll do fine.”
The decision to give Thomas a chance on the power-play point seemed to come out of the blue, and when asked how it came about, he replied, “I’m not sure, to be honest. I went into practice and that was the setup. I think ‘Beuk’ (Assistant Coach Jeff Beukeboom) coached against Oshawa in Juniors, so he might have seen me on the point, but other than that, I’m just happy to be on the point and be on the power play.”
Indeed, Beukeboom, who came to the Whale this year after four years as an assistant coach in the OHL, must have seen plenty of Thomas, as he tried to devise ways for his team to contain Oshawa’s dangerous sniper. While Beukeboom must be glad to have Thomas on his side now, he and his former adversary haven’t done much reminiscing about their battles in the OHL.
“He (Beukeboom) doesn’t really say much about Junior hockey, but his Sudbury Wolves were always a good team, hard to play against, and he’s really good to me,” said Thomas. “He always lets me know what I have to do to get better, and what I’m doing well. So I’m glad he’s here on the bench.”
If all goes according to plan, sometime in the near future Thomas and Kreider will be skating the wings at Madison Square Garden, continuing a flow of outstanding home-grown talent through Hartford into Manhattan. For now, both are working on rounding out their games in the AHL, and recently they have been Whale linemates, with heart-and-soul veteran Kris Newbury as their centerman. This combination has also been a key to Thomas’ recent surge.
“They’re two great players,” Thomas said of his linemates. “Kreider’s so fast, good on the forecheck, so you kind of just put it (the puck) in an area for him, but Newbs (Newbury), when he has the puck, you have to just be ready and you can get the puck at whatever time. So I’m really happy to play with those two guys.”
Playing alongside a warrior like Newbury has been particularly educational, according to Thomas.
“He’s a great guy to play with,” Thomas said of Newbury. “He’s been there, he knows what it takes, and he just tries to help me every shift, if I do something wrong or he wants me to do something better. He’s always talking to me.”
One of Steve Thomas’ calling cards at the NHL level, despite being a smaller player like Christian, was his powerful and accurate shot. Christian, to have scored as many goals as he did in a league as good as the OHL, had to have inherited a good dose of that skill. He showed flashes of being a real sharpshooter in his first pro action, but like everything else, that element of the game changes somewhat when a player moves up the ranks.
“I feel pretty confident in my shot still at this level, but starting off, first couple games, it’s a lot of adjusting to do,” Thomas said. “But I feel like I’m getting kind of close now, and I feel, like I said, kind of confidence with my shot, and I’m trying to get some openings now that I can let it go.”
Those openings are harder to come by in the AHL, Thomas has found, but he has started to work around that.
“You have less space (in the AHL), guys are bigger, stronger, quicker, less time with the puck,” Thomas said. “So you have to make quick plays, quick decisions, and I feel like I’m starting to get quicker.
“I think I’m just getting more adjusted to the AHL hockey game, it’s a lot different than Junior and it takes time and I feel like I’m getting a grasp of it now.”
In addition to his recent success this year, one bit of excitement that Thomas can already look back on from his pro career is the thrill of going up against his dad in a playoff series.
As the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Player Development Coordinator, Steve Thomas was behind the bench for Tampa’s then-AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, for Norfolk’s postseason action last spring. That included a six-game triumph over the Whale in the second round, on the way to an Admiral Calder Cup title, Steve Thomas’ first pro hockey championship. The memory of that matchup against the old fella’s club brings a chuckle from Christian.
“That was a tough series,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “It would be always nice to beat your dad in a game, but he got the upper hand there, and I’m happy for him that he finally got to win something.”