Beyond Tomorrow: Thomson adjusting to higher level of play in WHL

By Brian Fogarty

Jordan Thomson - Kamloops Blazers

Photo: Kamloops Blazers defenseman Jordan Thomson is currently considered to be one of the top defenders available for the 2014 NHL Draft (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

Jordan Thomson ranks among the top defensemen of the 2014 NHL Draft class. ISS lists Thomson 11th overall, and fourth among the defenseman available for the draft. So far in his rookie WHL season, Thomson has a goal and five assists in 23 games.

Thomson started skating when he was two years old. The son of a junior and collegiate hockey player, Thomson started playing organized hockey when he was four, and his accelerated path through midget hockey culminated with his selection by the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL bantam draft. The Blazers took Thomson fourth overall, making him the team’s highest-ever selection.

“I played midget as an underager, so I thought I had a good chance [to be drafted]. I was sure I was going to go, but I didn’t know where,” Thomson told Hockey’s Future. “On the day of the draft, I couldn’t sleep.”

Though Thomson thought he might go in the 10-to-20 range, being drafted fourth overall was a surprise.

“I’d had some good interviews, but when they called my name, it was exciting. It was definitely the greatest day of my life.”

Being drafted fourth overall in the WHL does not mean automatic and initial success, however. As a 16-year-old rookie playing major junior hockey on one of the WHL’s top teams, Thomson has had some ups and downs through the early part of the year.

“The speed is the hardest thing for me,” admitted Thomson. “I don’t have the size to take on the big bodies, so I have to try to keep my gaps and angle guys off the puck. But when they get around me, my speed helps me to get back on them. My biggest goal is to just not let them get around me in the first place.”

Thomson is 5’11” and weighs 171 pounds, and will likely add another inch or two over the next two or three years. “My mom’s brothers are all over 6’1”, and my brothers are all at least 6’0”, so I hope I get some more of their size,” Thomson said.

Thomson has good speed and mobility in all directions. He handles the puck well, and makes a good breakout pass from his own zone. Thomson plays defense with a mind toward transitioning to offense, and likes to push the puck up ice and join the rush. He has not been playing a lot on special teams so far, but Thomson is getting some time on the Blazers’ second power-play unit. When he has the puck in the offensive zone, he usually makes good reads and his passes are placed with accuracy and the proper weight to give his teammates options. Thomson has a good wrist shot, which he regularly puts on the net when given a chance, and his speed through the neutral zone can put pressure on opposing teams.

On the defensive side of things, Thomson possesses solid instincts and intelligence, but he lacks the experience and seasoning to have the kind of muscle-memory, second-nature quality in his own zone.

“He’s getting exposed right now,” said Kamloops head coach Guy Charron. “The games are getting tighter. As the year goes on, we’re playing in closer-checking games. Jordan is getting a little frustrated because some mistakes seem important.”

When asked what Coach Charron saw as Thomson’s biggest weakness in the defensive zone, Charron was clear about what he thought. “Maturity.  Jordan is learning how to play at this level. Tough mistakes can end up in your own net.”

Decision-making, especially when the speed of the game has increased and the players are bigger and stronger, becomes more critical, and for young players like Thomson, as the time to make those decisions decreases, mistakes happen.

“At times he can really step up on a player and keep his gaps, but at other times he still gets beat,” said Charron.  “One on one, he can be exposed.”

Coach Charron was equally clear about Thomson’s potential. “He’s going to be an impact player at this level. Right now he’s dealing with the fact that he’s a young sixteen-year-old player. I’d love to see him as an 18-year-old right now with his abilities on the ice.”

At times, Thomson rushes decisions with the puck, and he has shown a propensity for miscues with the puck either receiving a pass at the opponent’s blue line or in making a blind pass in his own zone. Thomson does not shy away from contact, but his physical game has a lot of room for improvement. At this point, he will try to bump players off the puck, or use his stick to try to generate a turnover, but rarely tries to make a big hit. Although he may not be an experienced hitter, he does show good timing and instincts. The deficiencies in Thomson’s defensive play—decision-making, patience, physical play—are the type of problems that should eventually smooth out as he grows and gets more experience.

Although he has struggled at times adjusting to playing defense on one the WHL’s top teams, Thomson has the tools and the attitude that could one day take him to the NHL, and he has plenty of time in a good system to develop those tools into an effective two-way skill set.  He will represent Canada West in the upcoming World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.

Looking Back

The last installment of Beyond Tomorrow featured Josh Ho-Sang, winger for the Windsor Spitfires. In the time since the article appeared, Ho-Sang has scored seven points in 10 games. He was named second star of the November 23rd game against Saginaw, and posted two assists in the November 30th loss in Kitchener. He is currently third among OHL rookies in assists with 18, and eight overall in rookie scoring.

Looking Beyond Tomorrow

Aaron Ekblad is one of only three players to have received an age exemption to play in the OHL since the formal application process was implemented in 2005 (2009 first overall NHL pick John Tavares (NYI), and current 15-year-old phenom Connor McDavid are the other two). Ekblad has the size (6’4”, 213 pounds) and maturity that make most 20-year-old defensemen envious. He also has five goals and 14 assists in 28 games this year for Barrie.

Jakub Vrana was called up to Sweden’s top league by his parent club Linkoping. Although he has yet to score in five Elitserien games, getting over nine minutes per game as a 16-year-old in the Swedish Elite League is a remarkable achievement in itself. Vrana was recently named to the Czech Republic squad for the upcoming World Junior Championship.

Anthony DeAngelo plays defense for the Sarnia Sting. In 2010, DeAngelo became the youngest player ever to play in the USHL when he suited up for Cedar Rapids at 14. Though originally committed to Boston University, DeAngelo chose instead to go the CHL route. He scored 23 points in 68 games last season as a 16-year-old (he has an October birth date), and through 29 games this season, he has nearly matched last year’s totals with 18 points and 23 games.

Next Time in Beyond Tomorrow

Next month’s Beyond Tomorrow will feature Ryan MacInnis, left winger playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program and son of NHL great, Al MacInnis.

Follow Brian Fogarty on Twitter via @Brian_Fogarty