Twenty-one games into his first Western Hockey League campaign, Minnesota Wild 2004 first rounder A.J. Thelen has adjusted to hockey north of the border.
Thelen opted to join the Prince Albert Raiders for the 2004-05 season after being dismissed from the Michigan State Spartans last season.
In his freshman season with Michigan State, the defenseman produced offensively at an impressive rate. With 29 points in 42 games, Thelen appeared to be proving he could be an offensive threat.
Thelen’s sophomore season wasn’t as successful, however. Failing to record a goal in 33 games, the 6’3, 212lb rearguard registered just 11 assists before being removed from the Spartans by head coach Rick Comley just before the start of the CCHA tournament.
Thelen admitted to the Detroit Free Press last March that his release was a result of underage drinking the night before a game and missing a team function. Other players in the past had been punished for underaged drinking and missing team functions but were not dismissed by Comley.
The winner of the CCHA’s Best Offensive Defenseman award in 2003-04 would have been eligible to remain in school on scholarship had he not opted to play for the Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL.
The new league is an adjustment that the native of Savage, Minnesota feels is going rather well.
“Individually I’m starting to intake the WHL game compared to the college game,” said Thelen, “I think I’m playing strong.”
With 13 points in 22 games, Thelen has quickly become one of the Raiders’ top players in terms of ice time, as well as their most lethal option for offense from the point. In fact, Thelen’s point totals place him in the top 15 in the league in defensemen scoring. In terms of rookie scoring, Thelen also ranks in the top 15.
For Thelen, the league is more unforgiving in two ways.
“I’d have to say it’s more physical,” he admitted. “It’s a quicker game and you have to make quicker decisions. It’s so much more NHL-like. College is more run-and-gun, wide open. What you see in the pros you see here.”
While Thelen himself has adjusted well to the league, his Prince Albert Raiders have struggled to find their way in the East Division. With just a 6-11-0-5 record through the club’s first 22 games, the Raiders sit seventh in the Eastern Conference, and the fourth lowest point total league-wide.
“Our team hasn’t been playing well this season and we’ve got to do something to get out of this slump,” said Thelen.
Getting the team back on track may be Thelen’s main goal at this point, but with the 2006 World Junior Championships in Vancouver soon approaching, the thought of wearing red, white and blue has entered his mind.
“The World Juniors are coming up,” said Thelen with a smile. “It’d be an honor to play in that.”
Thelen’s face should be a familiar one for USA Hockey. Thelen’s one of many produced from their National Team Development Program, playing 61 games with the US National Under-17 team in 2002-03.
Still, though, that doesn’t necessarily ensure that Thelen’s a lock to honor the stars and stripes in international competition. Despite a relatively young blue line for the 2005 World Junior Championships, Team USA opted not to include Thelen on the roster.
Thelen said that he hopes that he will not be overlooked for the second straight year, but notes his main concern is righting the Raiders ship.
“My concentration is on the team,” he said.
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