Crunch pleased with All-Star Thompson’s progress

Photo: Andreea Cardani/AHL

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

It’s a good thing that Syracuse Crunch defenseman Jack Thompson possesses plenty of energy.

The 21-year-old’s month started with a pair of home games against Belleville, a Friday-Saturday set. Then came the cross-country trip to San Jose to represent the Crunch at the 2024 AHL All-Star Classic. After two more nights on the ice followed by another set of eastbound flights back to Syracuse, Thompson had a bit of time before it was back to practice and then straight into a home-and-home series with Rochester this past weekend.

Thompson helps anchor the Syracuse blue line and takes on the hard, heavy minutes that come with that responsibility.

He was in the Syracuse lineup for their 3-2 overtime win on the road on Friday night. In the rematch back in Syracuse a night later, the Crunch had again fallen behind by a pair of goals to the Amerks. This time Thompson supplied a first-period goal that evened the score. Falling down in the right circle inside the Rochester zone, Thompson flicked a shot high over Devon Levi’s left shoulder The teams held even until overtime, where a Cole Koepke goal completed the 3-2 victory that gave the Crunch sole possession of first place in the North Division.

Thompson’s 30 points (five goals, 25 assists) through 43 games are just four points off the league lead among defensemen. Those 25 assists also rank him fourth in the league at the position. He also has uncorked 108 shots this season, seventh-most for league blueliners. He only has gone without a shot in three games this season.

Yes, February is off to a very good, albeit quite busy, start for the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect. For that matter, 2024 has been a memorable one for Thompson, who made his NHL debut on Jan. 6. But as much as the Lightning organization likes what they see from Thompson on the ice, it’s his approach that really stands out.

“With Jack what we like is that he represents a lot of what we’re all about as an organization,” Crunch head coach Joel Bouchard outlined. “He just comes to play. He’s a real man. He acts like a man. He processes like a man. A mistake or a mishap, and he’s like, ‘Hey, let’s go.’”

The 2020 third-round pick is very much on track, and that progress paid off with the call-up to the Lightning. That NHL promotion came via a phone call from Bouchard before the team was ready to head out on a bus trip to Toronto. A day later, Thompson had his parents in Boston to see him suit up and play 11:39 in his NHL debut.

“It was amazing,” Thompson said. “It was surreal.”

He also felt prepared, even if it was a Saturday at TD Garden against one of the NHL’s top clubs in the Bruins.

“It is different in ways,” Thompson said of the jump to the NHL game. “The AHL is a great league, so I think it preps you pretty well to get to the NHL. It doesn’t feel like you’re going into a completely new game. I think that the best thing about AHL. You play here for a long time, and you kind of get that feel when you get up there that it is a little bit different but you’re already adjusted. It doesn’t take too long to get up to speed.”

He hasn’t slipped since returning to Syracuse, either. In just his second pro season, he already wears an ‘A’ for the Crunch. It’s the sort of natural progression that has been part of Thompson’s path to this point. He captained Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League. In the 2020-21 season when the OHL did not play due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson instead set out at age 18 to play in Sweden. A year later he represented Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship, shouldering the responsibility, hype and fanfare that comes with that tournament.

It has been the same in Syracuse.

“I think he’s taken a lot of responsibility for us,” Bouchard said. “His game has grown. Everyone felt comfortable that [the alternate captaincy] was not going to impact him in a negative way, and it hasn’t. I think that he’s a person that’s really engaged and dedicated. He keeps evolving with the puck and without the puck and is noticeable for the right reasons. He’s got a high compete level.”

Thompson has been able to come into the pro game and immediately play for two experienced, demanding head coaches. This year it’s Bouchard. Last season it was Ben Groulx. Thompson also had a pair of top-tier blueliners in Trevor Carrick and Darren Raddysh to ease that transition.

“I think last year was big for me to grow my all-around game under Ben and learn a lot of things from a lot of good players,” Thompson said.

When Thompson entered this season, Raddysh had been promoted to the Lightning, and Carrick had returned to the Anaheim organization. Those departures left a lot of minutes to fill, and Bouchard turned to Thompson. The second-year prospect took that opportunity.

“That gave me a lot of confidence to play my game,” Thompson said. “Every coach you get is different in their way. I think that’s the cool part of hockey, that you get to see all these coaches and styles.”

Groulx liked Thompson’s game. So does Bouchard. The expectation is that at some point Thompson will be making Lightning head coach Jon Cooper happy as well.

“Obviously he’s got tools as a player,” Bouchard said. “What makes a difference is your approach, your professionalism, your maturity, your character, your [being] open-minded about change, your assessment of situations.

“I think Jack is just evolving like that as a good hockey player.”