JENKINS TWP. – It’s understandable when Bill Thomas – the newest Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin, said he was tired when he woke up on Monday morning.
No, Thomas didn’t awake drowsy because he dreaded the start of another work week. Nor did he suffer from lack of sleep from staying up all night over the weekend.
It’s just that he flew from Pittsburgh to Maine on Friday, played in two hockey games, flew back to Pittsburgh on Sunday, got caught in traffic for the Steelers game as he drove home to Fox Chapel, said goodbye to his parents and then drove to Wilkes-Barre where he arrived at 10 p.m. on Sunday night.
But now the whirlwind weekend is over and Thomas, who was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton by Pittsburgh late last week, is ready to get into a routine and start working his way back to the NHL.
The addition of Thomas, 25, means another talented forward for head coach Dan Bylsma’s already potent offense. Last year when he played 75 games with San Antonio in the AHL, Thomas scored 24 goals and added 28 assists. In 122 career AHL games, he has 85 points.
It’s not that Thomas doesn’t want to get back to the NHL, but he figures while he is here he might as well make the most of it. That means having fun playing some offense.
“It’s a little more nerve-wracking playing up there (NHL). My role was a penalty killer and you don’t want to get scored on,” Thomas said after Monday’s practice at the Ice Box. “Here you’re allowed to play a little more offensive, which is something I’ve always done in college and juniors. It’s more fun than having to go out there and if you get scored on are you not going to get your next shift, sit out the next game or get sent down? It’s less stressful.”
Thomas has had a taste of the NHL. He broke into the league during the 2005-2006 season with the Phoenix Coyotes. He has gone on to play 42 games in the NHL, scoring nine goals and 17 points. But this season with Pittsburgh, Thomas was scoreless in two games, and he wasn’t improving by not suiting up.
It’s something both he and Pittsburgh agreed on.
“They (Pittsburgh) said it wasn’t fair. I wasn’t getting on the ice and I totally understand it,” Thomas said. “You want to go play and get that back. Now I get to play power play, penalty kill and five-on-five, so it’s a good situation for me.”
Still, Thomas knows his offensive production at the AHL level probably won’t land him a spot on Pittsburgh’s top two lines. Instead, he hopes to improve all aspects of his game so when Pittsburgh has a hole, Thomas can go up and fill it.
Bylsma described Thomas as a speedy, talented goal scorer at the AHL level with a lethal right-handed shot. But he said there is more to the story.
“He’s another guy on the cusp of being an NHL player,” Bylsma said. “It’s one of the unwritten things that maybe fans don’t see about players who are really talented and have NHL speed. How do you apply that in the NHL?”
That’s why Thomas is here to develop into a better penalty killer so he can do that for Pittsburgh. Bylsma added he is also adding grit and toughness with the puck so Pittsburgh can count on him to play along the boards and deep in the offensive zone.
“He’s still trying to figure out how his skills translate into NHL minutes,” Bylsma said. “Puck toughness, penalty kill and puck management are all things that will add to his NHL package.”
As for Thomas, he feels the atmosphere that Bylsma and assistant coach Todd Reirden provide in Wilkes-Barre is the perfect place to build his NHL skills.
“The coaches here are great with the players. It’s a give and take thing because the coaches are easy to talk to and you can approach them,” Thomas said. “They want to know what you’re thinking and feeling. It’s a good situation and I’m comfortable here.”