Most Improved: Lassi Thomson (20%)
Runners up: Erik Brännström (17%), Ridly Greig (14%), Parker Kelly (12%), the field (14 other players took the remaining share of 37%)
After a difficult stint playing professional hockey in Finland’s top league from 2019-21 and a cup of coffee in AHL Belleville last season, our most improved prospect thrived in an expanded role under head coach Troy Mann and played admirably in his first NHL games. Thomson didn’t earn the distinction of most improved prospect by virtue of rising up from the depths of obscurity but rather by developing into a bona fide NHL-calibre player after looking like a wild card just a year ago. While fans of the Ottawa Senators have always wanted to believe in Thomson’s potential based on his pedigree, only this past season did it really start to feel like the Finnish defender had a guaranteed place in the future of this young NHL team.
Starting with the AHL numbers, in 44 games this season, Thomson set new highs in goals (ten), assists (16), and shots (84). In his annual Belleville year in review article, Spencer also bestowed upon Thomson the distinction of most improved BSen, and few people watch more Belleville hockey than Spencer. In fewer than 80 games in the AHL, Thomson has become a trustworthy minute-eater on the blueline in Belleville and one of the BSens primary catalysts for offence at five-on-five and on the powerplay. I don’t love that Thomson’s penalty minutes jumped from 12 to 54 last season but I can also appreciate the realities of playing top-pairing defence in one of the toughest hockey leagues in the world.
In 16 NHL games, I scarcely think things could have gone better for the young defender. Of note, Thomson notched five assists and 18 shots in Ottawa while take just one minor penalty (and drawing three!). Sample size noted, Thomson led Ottawa defenders in five-on-five corsi-for percentage at 50.46 and while his five-on-five expected goals-for percentage of 47.40 doesn’t look like much, it ranks him right in between two guys named Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub. Again, Thomson didn’t have some meteoric glow-up from late-round pick to all-star, but he does look like a capable NHL defender at age 21 and I don’t think the Senators or their fans can really ask for more at this point.
Watching Thomson play, I would attribute his success playing professional North American hockey to the simplicity of his game. He doesn’t go onto the ice looking to make the fanciest plays. Thomson stays in position (this dog doesn’t wander from home), knows his assignment, and controls gaps well. Thomson doesn’t exactly fit the mold of oversize defenders that Ottawa seems to covet but he engages physically and uses his frame well to maintain control of the play. I also really admire Thomson’s poke-checking skills and his ability to separate players from the puck without taking penalties.
I don’t know what this coming season holds for Thomson with Zub, Nikita Zaitsev, and Travis Hamonic all under contract, and players like Nick Holden and Michael Del Zotto battling for that last spot on the blueline. With his 22nd birthday coming up, Thomson can still afford to spend more time in Belleville, especially in a role as a leader and defensive cornerstone under coach Mann. Thomson will eventually force his way into the NHL depth chart this season and rightfully so. Since coming to North America, his stock has only gone up.