It’s been five games since the Ottawa Senators recalled Lassi Thomson in order to fill out their heavily-depleted lineup after several players went into COVID-19 protocol. Initially, there were subdued expectations. The team’s 2019 first-round pick never had the pedigree of a Jake Sanderson or Jacob Bernard-Docker and likely needed more time in the minors before making an impact in the NHL. But attitudes quickly changed once he stepped on the ice against the Los Angeles Kings on Nov 11, 2021. The 21-year-old blueliner, rather than struggling to keep up, looked right at home in a Senators’ uniform while playing with and against some of the best hockey players in the world.
Five games were all it took to turn Thomson into a fan favourite in Ottawa, and now with Josh Brown out for some time, it looks like Thomson is here to stay. Fans couldn’t be happier; the defence has been one of the weakest positions for the Senators, and there’s a tangible possibility that his presence will turn things around. Even coach D.J. Smith is a fan, saying, “Lassi Thomson has been really good. Good feet, gap, snaps the puck hard. His ability to defend has been very good.”
There’s no question that Thomson will be part of the next wave of young Senators, and he’s certainly passed the eye test, but how much of an impact is he truly making? Taking a look at his advanced stats over his first five NHL games this season, it appears that while he doesn’t fix all of Ottawa’s problems, he is already making a big impact and likely to stick around for a bit longer.
Thomson Brings Much-Needed Offense
So far in 2021-22, the Senators have had little offensive support from their blue line. In 17 games, only two defencemen have scored, those being Artem Zub and Michael Del Zotto. Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, and Nick Holden have all played over 10 games each, yet have just two points combined. And of their top-six, only Thomas Chabot and Zub have a positive plus/minus record.
That’s not a great situation for a young defenceman to be thrown into, but Thomson has risen to the occasion. In his five games, he already has three assists, including one that was initially thought to be a goal, but was deflected at the last second by Zach Sanford. That’s a 60-point pace over a full season, which would make him the highest-scoring defender on the team.
While he’s still searching for his first goal, Thomson has been helping drive the offense. His Corsi-for percentage, which measures how often the team had the puck while he was on the ice at even strength, sits at 46.3 percent, the third-highest among Senators defencemen. He also has the second-highest on-ice shooting percentage among players who have appeared in at least five games at 14.3 percent, meaning that when he is on the ice, the team around him is shooting — and scoring — more often. Only Brady Tkachuk has a higher percentage.
But maybe the most telling statistic is that Thomson is averaging nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game and playing in every situation. Smith often is hesitant to rely on young defenders — Erik Brannstrom averaged under 17 minutes before his injury. But Thomson has quickly become one of the coach’s go-to guys, earning the third-highest ice time average of the team’s defencemen. It’s hardly a surprise, either. He blocks shots, lays hits, and steals the puck whenever he can, and management loves his work ethic and all-around presence.
Thomson’s Defensive Issues Persist
Before Thomson made his NHL debut, he was seen as a potential top-four, two-way defenceman who needed to work on his defensive game and physicality. After spending a season and a half in Finland playing in their top league, the physical side has definitely improved. So far, he has 10 hits in five games, giving him an average of two hits a game and tying him for 10th on the team. That’s a huge improvement in strength and tenacity from where he was two or three seasons ago.
However, his defensive skills continue to lag behind. While his on-ice shooting percentage is one of the highest on the team, his on-ice save percentage, which measures the team’s effectiveness in keeping the puck out of the net while he’s on the ice, is the lowest of any Senator at just 78.3 percent. That means that, when he’s on the ice, the opposition is scoring roughly twice out of every 10 shots. To compare it to a goalie’s save percentage, the worst save percentage last season was posted by the Calgary Flames’ Artyom Zagidulin, who had a 0.818 after just one game, during which he allowed two goals in 11 shots. He never suited up for another game that season.
Despite his defensive struggles, Thomson has been one of the most utilized defensemen on special teams, which isn’t helping his stats at all. He has the fourth-most time on the power play and the third-highest goals allowed average on the penalty kill. He also has started in the defensive zone over 55 percent of the time, and the Senators currently sit dead last in the NHL with an average of 3.82 goals allowed per game. While this is hardly the rookie defender’s fault, it does point to the fact that Thomson isn’t addressing one of Ottawa’s biggest issues.
Will Thomson Stay in the NHL?
Although Thomson does little to boost the Senators’ defensive consistency, he’s proven that he deserves to be in the NHL. His impact on offense has been a welcome addition, and he’s already developing some chemistry with Thomas Chabot and earned some high praise after the team’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
“Playing with him has been fun. We try and feed a lot off each other. He’s a really good skater and moves the puck really well. And I think that’s something we’re trying to take advantage of together.”Thomas Chabot on playing with Lassi Thomson (from ‘Despite gutsy effort, D.J. Smith calls Senators’ loss in Denver ‘unacceptable’’, The Athletic – 23/11/2021)
While the Senators undoubtedly want to see his defensive game improve, that was never the role Thomson was expected to fill. From the day they selected him 19th overall, he was always expected to be a puck-moving defender with speed and a good work ethic. “Let’s face it: defensemen are part of the offensive game now,” Senators’ scout Trent Mann said after selecting Thomson. “Teams play with units of five now. It’s not units of three, and that’s what he does. He’s able to move the puck, transition the puck up ice quickly, and he’s able to support the play, and he has upside at the offensive blue line. Those are the defensemen that have an impact on the game now.”
The Senators are struggling now, and as much as the fans and media love him, Thomson won’t be the magic cure, nor will Brannstrom or fellow rookie blueliner Jacob Bernard-Docker. But as more young guns break into the NHL, the better Ottawa will get. Brown, Del Zotto, Zaitsev, and Holden were never supposed to be long-term additions; the eye has always been on the future. And thankfully, the first glimpses of that future look promising.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.