Coming in at 17th on this year's list we have a former prolific OHL scorer entering his third year of pro hockey with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Christian Thomas has not exactly been a world beater since turning pro, but his undeniable offensive skills have held him within our top 25 since he was acquired from the Rangers.
Danny Kristo was the player given up to get Thomas, which given their respective results in our annual series would suggest that our panels wouldn't have made the trade. Kristo debuted ahead of even Max Pacioretty on our lists, and although this was quickly corrected a year later, he remained a perennial top 10 selection. Thomas having been acquired through the loss of someone so highly valued may well have hurt his stock among our voters.
While his debut ranking of 19th last summer likely suffered due to this and a lack of exposure, he still has yet to win over the EOTP panel a year later. While he gained two spots from that list, he dropped one from 16th in the midterm rankings, not able to capitalize on the spots made available.
While Thomas has remained rather stagnant in his ranking, his stock among our panel tends to experience significant peaks and valleys. Laura had him in the final spot of her top 10, Mark Black had him outside the top 25 altogether at 27, and the rest of the votes fell pretty scattered throughout that range.
As tends to be a requirement for players of smaller stature, Thomas is a very good skater. He accelerates quick and at top-speed, he's very hard to catch. A prolific scorer in junior, he has a knack for finding the net, a sneaky quick shot and good vision to find teammates in the offensive zone. He's a good puck handler, and can execute some pretty slick moves even when moving at high speed. He's scrappy for his size, and his high end comparable may be something along the lines of Brian Gionta.
Thomas had a pretty solid 2013-14 campaign with the Bulldogs, notching 11 goals and 27 points, seventh in team scoring through just 55 games of action. Playing most of his year alongside AHL veteran Martin St. Pierre in somewhat of an exploitation role, he was often a solid trigger man for the Bulldogs departed captain. He also produced well on the powerplay with St. Pierre and Nathan Beaulieu.
The fact that his excellent scoring pace in junior has yet to translate as a professional shouldn't be of too much concern. The Bulldogs struggled mightily to score last year and he spent some time injured. When placed alongside Louis Leblanc last year, they became a scoring chance machine of a duo, but didn't get the puck luck they needed to really cash in on those chances. As a result they were split up, and this will no longer be an option with Leblanc gone to Anaheim. This year, Thomas is going to be looked to for production, and should have the opportunity to benefit from other good linemates. If he can put up good numbers, there's no reason why he wouldn't be in the mix if the Habs need some reinforcements.
It should be particularly interesting to see how he can work with an almost entirely new unit on the powerplay this year in Hamilton, and if he can produce without guys like Beaulieu and St. Pierre as a supporting cast. If he can help lead a new group to success, this would definitely help his case for a shot at the big club.
His biggest weakness that will always be pointed out in earnest is his size. At 5'9" and roughly 175 lbs., he lacks the power to contend with some of the larger pro players. While his speed does a lot to make up for his size disadvantage, he will lose some puck battles to larger players. He has also had some injury problems, which could become a concern transitioning into the NHL given his size.
His defensive skillset is also still a work in progress. He has made improvements, but at this point is still somewhat one-dimensional. His high-end offensive talent is attractive, but he lacks the defensive responsibility to be relied on for anything more than an exploitation role, hurting his NHL chances at this point.
If there are two things Christian Thomas can do to improve his NHL chances, it's to hit the gym and work on defense. He has all the offensive skills you want in an NHL forward, and if he can get stronger, better conditioned and more adept defensively, he could easily become a regular NHLer in a few years.
With two AHL seasons now under his belt, this is a year in which Thomas will have a serious opportunity to break out with the Bulldogs. Louis Leblanc, Martin St. Pierre, Mike Blunden and likely Nathan Beaulieu all gone, he will need to become a more consistent offensive producer, and should get the looks that go with that role.
Whether he is a viable future member of the Canadiens won't necessarily hinge on his performance this year, but it's definitely going to be an important campaign for the 22-year-old. With the addition of P.A. Parenteau, the signing of Jiri Sekac, and other prospects making a push toward the NHL, it is clear that Thomas will have to make his hay in Hamilton for the large majority of the year. Even if he wants to be considered for a shot at spot duty, he'll likely have to outshine other members of his team; other guys who we either have or will be profiling this year.
As it stands, I would be quite hesitant to project him as a top-six NHL talent. I would project him more in a secondary scoring, third-line type of role, unless he can show some serious production in Hamilton over the next year or two. This next season in Hamilton, and any time he may get with the big club, should go a long way to determining his true ceiling in professional hockey.