The 2017 NHL Entry Draft has come and gone and the Tampa Bay Lightning selected six players to fill their prospect ranks. While most, if not all, of those six players will not be making their NHL debut next season, one Lightning prospect who has a very strong chance to make his is defenseman Ben Thomas.
A native of Calgary, Alberta, Thomas played a key part in the Syracuse Crunch’s run to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Final. He’s also one of the Lightning prospects that could help history repeat itself.
Thomas is listed at 6’ 2” and 187 lbs. meaning he still has a little room to grow as he adds muscle to his frame. He’ll need that extra muscle and size if he wants to take that next step in his development and have a successful transition to the NHL. The good news is he still has time to both grow and continue learning as he just turned 21 on May 28.
Catching Yzerman’s Eye
Despite his inexperience and young age, Thomas’ play this past season caught the eye of Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman. Yzerman dropped his name, with fellow blue-liner Dominik Masin, last week when discussing which players from the Crunch impressed him with their development.
Yzerman mentions how pleased he is with the development of Dominik Masin & Ben Thomas this year with the @syracusecrunch.
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) June 22, 2017
Thomas was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft with the 119th overall selection. He was the fourth defenseman taken by the Lightning behind Masin, Johnathan MacLeod, and Anthony DeAngelo. While he wasn’t the first defenseman taken, the organization went heavy on defense in Yzerman’s second draft after taking none in his first.
After two more seasons in the Western Hockey League, in which he played 134 games between his hometown Calgary Hitmen and the Vancouver Giants, he scored 15 goals and assisted on another 41. Thomas signed a three-year Entry Level Contract on March 22, 2016. He finished the 2015-16 season with the Crunch appearing in eight games with one goal with three assists.
As a rookie with the Crunch in 2016-17, Thomas played up and down the Crunch’s defensive pairings and appeared in 71 games. He had three goals, 18 assists, and was a minus-one in the regular season. His game really took off in the post-season with five goals, eight assists, and a plus-11 in 22 games.
Taking the Next Step
As Thomas prepares for his second full professional season, his focus is now on the Lightning’s 2017 training camp. He has a great chance to see more ice time with the Crunch next season thanks to the Lightning losing Jason Garrison to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft.
Yzerman said he expects either recent acquisition Mikhail Sergachev or Slater Koekkoek to take Garrison’s place on the Lightning blue line. Garrison’s absence coupled with Jake Dotchin likely earning a spot on the Lightning roster means that the Crunch have an extremely large amount of ice time up for grabs on the backend.
To take advantage of this opportunity, Thomas must continue to work on his skating as well as whatever he did in the post-season that made him so successful and a key piece of the Crunch’s Calder Cup Final run. He must gain strength and muscle while also maintaining speed and agility. He must also work on his knowledge and decision making.
Thomas is in a great position. His post-season success, along with the likely departures of Koekkoek and Dotchin, will provide him with increased ice time and also a larger leadership role. Thomas’ previous development trajectory suggests that this should not be too daunting a task for him.
Geoff Nichols is a 29-year-old lover of all things hockey in non-traditional markets. He is a former front office member for a minor league team in Florida and has worked in or covered hockey in Texas and the southeast United States. Be sure to follow him on Twitter or Like his Facebook page.