As a 16-year-old rookie in the Ontario League two years ago, Christian Thomas found himself involved in one of the circuit’s biggest trades ever when he was shipped from London to Oshawa along with two other players and a bunch of draft picks for John Tavares and Michael Del Zotto.
“Leaving my billet family and all my friends I made in London, that was probably the hardest part, but coming to Oshawa I got to play on the power play, penalty kill; I got a lot more opportunities, which really helped out my game,” Thomas said.
The 5-foot-9 speedster had scored four goals in 32 games for the Knights and went on to add another four in 27 games for a dreadful Generals team. But it was during his second season, in 2009-10, that Thomas really began to shine.
The Generals were still in a rebuild, but Thomas stepped up in a big way, leading the team with 41 goals and 66 points in 64 games. His performance drew the attention of rival coaches in a season-ending poll, where Thomas was voted the most improved player. Not only that, he was the runner-up for most dangerous in the goal area, best shot, hardest shot and best stickhandler.
“Last year, at the beginning of the season, I didn’t make the under-18 team, so that really made me want to prove them wrong,” Thomas said.
His strong season also caught the attention of the New York Rangers, who drafted Thomas 40th overall. While some teams shied away from Thomas’ small stature, pushing him to the second round, the Rangers keyed in on his skills and intangibles.
“We’ve gone through it with (Ryan) Callahan and there were a lot of question marks then around the league, but over the last couple of years it’s been, ‘Wow, look what this kid’s done,’” said Rangers director, player personnel, Gordie Clark. “Callahan doesn’t think he’s 5-foot-11, he thinks he’s 6-foot-3.”
Thomas certainly comes from solid roots. His dad, Steve, was a feisty forechecker who scored 421 career NHL goals in 1,235 games with six different teams, most prominently the Blackhawks, Maple Leafs and Islanders. Christian vaguely recalls being able to go on the ice after some of his dad’s practices and said his most vivid recollection is shooting on Curtis Joseph in Toronto.
But while both Christian and his father are fast, aggressive, undersized skaters, Christian believes he can bring more to the table.
“I hear it sometimes, people say ‘You skate like your dad, you play like your dad,’ but I try to play my own game,” Christian said. “He was hard on the forecheck, pretty quick, I think I’m similar like that. But I think I’m more of a skill player than my dad.”
This season, Oshawa’s rebuild has come full circle as the team is challenging for top spot in its division. And, once again, Thomas is a key cog, sitting third in the OHL with 25 goals and leading his team with 44 points in 31 games.
While Thomas lists his speed and shot as his strengths, he admits he needs to continue getting stronger on the puck by working in the gym and even points out it can’t hurt to continue working on his more fine-tuned attributes.
The Rangers have had success in the second round recently, with Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky and Mike Sauer finding playing time with the big club this year. And while the Blueshirts aren’t banking on an impressive leap from the OHL to the NHL next year from Thomas, it’s impossible to tell how a player will come along and react in 12 months.
“I didn’t think Del Zotto was going to be there,” Clark said. “I thought maybe another year in junior, but he just really has a good commitment to working out. He was snubbed by the world junior team, but instead of yapping about it he didn’t say a word and used it to get himself going and the next year he couldn’t go to the world juniors because he was a regular in our lineup.”
All you need is the drive and desire – ingredients that run in Christian Thomas’ family.
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