BRANDON — When Lightning defense prospect Jack Thompson first showed up at AHL Syracuse at the end of the 2020-21 season, coach Ben Groulx was afraid to play him.
Thompson was just a few weeks removed from his 19th birthday, and it was less than a year since he had been drafted by the Lightning in the third round. He was not just young, but small, and Groulx feared the then-5-foot-10 Thompson would get swallowed up by the AHL’s physical game.
Thompson had just lost his juniors season to the pandemic, unable to play for Sudbury after the Ontario Hockey League canceled its season. He was loaned to play in Sweden, and juniors players were allowed to play in the AHL. But in some ways, it was still a lost season developmentally for Thompson.
“He was practicing with us,” Groulx said. “And it was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t play him. Poor guy, he’s overwhelmed.’ You could see the talent, but it’s a man’s league. So you don’t want to put him in a situation that the guy is going to get overwhelmed and he’s going to lose his confidence.”
But as Thompson has shown throughout his career, he’ll seek his level given the opportunity. He’s a quick study, knows where he needs to improve and is resilient rounding out his game. What he may lack in size, he makes up for with moxie.
Over a couple of weeks watching Thompson practice with the Crunch, Groulx saw steady improvement. He became curious about whether Thompson could hang with AHL players, so he put him in the lineup for one game at the end of the season.
“You see a little bit more of him, and the last game of the year, we said, ‘Ehh, I’d like to see him play,’ " Groulx said.
“And he was our best (defenseman).”
Last season, Thompson put up big offensive numbers in the OHL and had a stellar performance for gold-medal-winning Canada at the World Junior Championships this summer. He’s slated to return to Syracuse for his first real season of pro hockey this year.
At this weekend’s prospect showcase in North Carolina, he hopes to show how much he has improved. A team of Tampa Bay prospects is playing squads from Carolina, Florida and Nashville.
“I just need to show myself,” Thompson, now 20, said. “I want to show them that I’m available to play pro hockey and ready to play pro hockey. That’s basically what this is, showing yourself and showing them what you’ve improved on throughout the summer and what you’ve grown with your game since you’ve been drafted or since last time we saw you.”
Thompson always has been an offensive threat, and the Lightning will take a look at him quarterbacking the power play during the showcase. He put up 57 points, including 21 goals, in 65 OHL games with Sudbury and the Soo Greyhounds last season. He scored six goals and 14 points in nine games in the OHL playoffs with the Greyhounds.
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At world juniors, he was a dynamic player on a talent-laden roster, getting one goal and three assists in seven games. He also played well on the penalty kill and was plus-14 for the tournament.
“It was a lot of fun,” Thompson said of his experience. “Getting a chance to play with some of those players on that team, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play for Canada in the first place. We had some generational talents on that team, and to be able to get a chance to play on home ice (the tournament was in Canada) and win was very cool.”
Thompson’s next big test is how he handles the physical nature of the AHL over a whole season. He is listed at 6 feet and 187 pounds. He’s never going to be the biggest defenseman. So he’ll have to continue to make up for his lack of size with smarts and skill.
“That’s going to be my main focus, getting the chance to play against men for the first time, really, in my life,” he said. “So that’s going to be different, but I’m really excited for the challenge.
“It’s just knowing situations and being smart with your stick. I’m not a massive defenseman, so I have to use my stick to my advantage and play positionally smart and then also kind of gain a bit of a mean streak to my game.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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