With Erik Karlsson long gone to San Jose, the Ottawa Senators were on the hunt for a talented right-shot defenceman.
They went off the board to get him, selecting Lassi Thomson of the Kelowna Rockets 19th overall in the first round of Friday’s NHL Draft. The native of Tampere, Finland is 6-feet tall, 186 pounds and produced 17 goals and 41 points for the Kelowna Rockets this season.
“I’m so excited, I don’t know what to say now,” Thomson told reporters in Vancouver after his selection. When he heard his name called, Thomson says he thought to himself, ‘what happened?’ “I didn’t expect that,” he said, of going 19th overall.
The pick was something of a shocker to others as well, considering most draft analysts had Thomson projected to go in the second round. On the ISS list, Thomson was 38th. He was 45th on McKeen’s. The Recrutes site of Grant McCagg, however, had Thomson 13th. Thomson was ranked 15th among North American skaters.
Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke said he was “baffled” by Ottawa’s pick, suggesting Thomson does “not have elite skill level.”
“He’s a mid-sized guy,” Burke said. “Not small, but mid-sized. Hard shot. Not an elite skill level. There’s a split (of opinion) on this guy.”
McCagg replied on Twitter: “I think I am disagreeing with everything Burkie is saying.”
McCagg called Thomson a “great pick by Ottawa.”
Louie DeBrusk of Sportsnet concurred. More or less.
“I like when these players take that risk and come over to North America and play,” DeBrusk said. “It’s a different game, in a different rink, and show themselves in the world. It’s worked out for Thomson.”
An excellent puck carrier, Thomson has strong lateral ability. Some scouts see him as more of a second-pair defenceman in the future, which isn’t the worst thing considering the Senators already have top-D prospects Thomas Chabot and Erik Brannstrom. However, both those players shoot left, and Thomson provides some balance, along with 2018 first-rounder Jacob Bernard-Docker.
It may take a while to find out where Thomson slots in. He could return to play in Kelowna next season, or join AHL Belleville or he may be in Finland with Ilves. Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said the issue will be discussed with the player.
“We’re extremely pleased,” Dorion said in a scrum after the first round. “We were discussing this morning who we were going to get … and everyone felt Thomson was going to be the guy.
“Seventeen goals is a lot for a defenceman — the way he skates, and moves the puck, the way he transitions in the offensive zone and jumps into the play are all things we are really happy to have,” Dorion added.
Thomson is the 11th Finnish born defenceman to be selected in the first round of the draft, and the first Finn picked by Ottawa in the first round. Immediately after Thomson’s selection at No. 19, the Winnipeg Jets took another Finnish defenceman, Ville Heinola, at No. 20.
Thomson felt he progressed as his first season playing junior hockey in Canada went along and enjoyed the more physical game on a smaller rink.
“I wanted to see how they play hockey here, and get good experience,” Thomson said.
By his own admission, Thomson needs to work on his “skating and shooting,” though he considers himself an offensive player who likes to shoot the puck.
He has visited Ottawa once – five years ago, playing with a Finnish team in a minor hockey tournament.
What does he know of the Nation’s Capital?
“I know it’s cold,” Thomson said. Smart kid.
As happy as he was to get Thomson at 19th overall, Dorion is eager to return to the podium in short order for picks 32 and 44 in the second round. That is, if no one steps up with an offer Dorion can’t refuse for that first pick of the second round.
“Having pick 32 is really exciting, because between pick 31 and 32 is the longest break in the draft,” Dorion said. “A lot of times scouts tell their GM, ‘we never thought this guy would be available at 32, can you try to get No. 32.’ So we figure we’re going to get a lot of calls between the end of Round 1 Friday night and Saturday morning when it starts again.”
Before the first round ended, Dorion was seen visiting with Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, likely discussing ways that the Cap-friendly Senators might provide relief to Cap-stressed Toronto.
220 picks and counting: Thomson was the Senators’ 220th draft pick since they re-joined the NHL in 1992, and he is the 31st first-round selection. Of the 220, 79 draftees were defencemen, 44 centres, 38 left wingers, 37 right wingers and 22 goaltenders. A total of 109 Ottawa picks have played at least one NHL game. Twenty-three of Ottawa’s 30 previous first-round choices have played for the Senators and five others played in the NHL for other teams.
Join the crowd: The Senators have five former first-rounders still in the organization, including Brady Tkachuk (2018), Logan Brown (2016), Thomas Chabot (2015), Colin White (2015) and Cody Ceci (2012). Tkachuk stepped to the mic Friday to announce the selection of Thomson.
Draft day frenzy: Prior to 2019, the Senators have made dozens of draft-day trades. None were bigger than the deal concocted by then-GM Marshall Johnston on June 23, 2001. Johnston dealt centre Alexei Yashin to the New York Islanders in exchange for defenceman Zdeno Chara, forward Bill Muckalt and New York’s first-round pick that year. Johnston used the pick to draft Jason Spezza. Spezza would eventually become captain of the Senators and Chara anchored Ottawa’s defence until he left to join the Boston Bruins in 2006.
Smith on the prowl: New Senators head coach D. J. Smith is in Vancouver, interviewing assistant coach candidates. He needs at least a couple more to round out his staff.
“I’ve got to find someone who’s a power play guy, an offensive guy,” Smith said, in a scrum at the draft. “I’ve had all kinds of interviews, probably upwards of six or seven.
“I’ll continue to talk to people to make sure we get the right guy, the right fit for the culture.” Smith may or may not also hire an “eye in the sky” coach. He expects to add a video coach soon.