At 6-foot-3, the fast-skating, hard-shooting Thomas Harley may be tailor-made for the modern NHL blue line, but, growing up, the Mississauga Steelheads’ defenseman found inspiration in a player who is physically his polar opposite.
In almost every facet imaginable.
He looked up to longtime NHL center Daniel Brière.
All 5-foot-9 of him.
“Number 48, yeah,” said Harley, who likely grew the connection from the fact that the Syracuse-born, dual-citizen grew up watching the Buffalo Sabres.
“I don’t know how I got there but he was my favourite player.”
But though his favorite player may be a diminutive forward, Harley’s future appears set as a prototypical tall, puck-moving defenseman tailor made for today’s NHL.
“It’s definitely who I’ve always been,” Harley said. “I’m not a hugely physical guy — I kind of just play the puck and move the puck quickly up to the forwards — that’s the game the scouts want to see.”
James Richmond, Harley’s coach, sees a bright future for the blueliner based not only on his natural talents, but his desire to work and get better.
“I think he’s a special player, I really do,” Richmond said. “With the young guys sometimes you just have to allow them the natural progression to get stronger. His head is right for the game. He’s got great feet and he’s got a great head. If you watch the NHL games now, he’s what a prototypical defenseman looks like.
“He’s a natural fit. He’s a hard-working kid off the ice. He had a real good summer of training. We talked a couple of times and I told him what my expectations were going to be and they were right along with his. It’s been fun to watch.”
Last year, Harley finished the year with 15 points (one goal, 14 assists) in the 62 games of his rookie campaign. This season, he’s accounted for 18 points (three goals, 15 assists).
He said he attributes that to hard work and natural progression.
“My confidence has gone up,” admitted Harley, 56th in Future Considerations’ Fall ranking for the 2019 NHL Draft.
“Last year, as a 16-year-old, it was hard to play at this level. I had a great summer, getting stronger and getting better, and this year it’s been great. My ice time has been great, the team has been great, the defense is really stepping up this year.”
That commitment to improving his defense is something that his coach said he started seeing last year.
“Always with the young kids coming in, there’s a bit of a pushback on the commitment to playing defense,” Richmond said. “I think he really took off last year a couple of months in and just grew as a player and has accepted that commitment more and more. He’s just going on from what he did last year.”
Of course, there’ is still room to improve.
The 17-year-old will be the first to admit it.
“My defensive zone play and two-way game is something I need to work on,” Harley said. “I’ve been doing video over the past couple of weeks just to see what I’m doing wrong and how to fix it. I need tighter gaps, better stick — just get the stick on the puck and body-to-body.”
He said he’s able to translate his video sessions into practice during the game.
“I feel like I think the game pretty well. As I’m doing that stuff, I just try to remember what I saw on the video and put it into my game,” he said.
There are efforts being made off the ice, too.
Harley has a number of people around him who are helping him deal with the pressures of draft year. He’s trying not to focus on the scouts, but rather continuing to play the team-first way that’s got him where he is.
Keep playing your game.
“That is mostly what they say,” he said with a laugh.
“Sorry to be cliché.”