Doubting Thomas no longer in vogue
Share with others:
Mike Zigomanis knows a little about winning faceoffs.
OK, a lot.
So much that he probably has forgotten more about that aspect of his job than Bill Thomas knows.
Which is what makes Thomas' work on draws over his 11 games since being summoned from the Penguins' minor league team in Wilkes-Barre in mid-January so impressive.
Thomas -- playing center and handling faceoffs for the first time, by his recollection, since he was 17 -- has gone 47-36, a success rate of 56.6 percent.
Not as dazzling as Zigomanis' rate of 62.9 percent, to be sure, but not bad alongside those of the rest of the Penguins' centers: Max Talbot (51.7), Sidney Crosby (49.7), Jordan Staal (48.1) and Evgeni Malkin (41.3).
"He's doing a great job, I think," Zigomanis said. "He said he's getting more comfortable in that job, so good for him. And good for us."
With Zigomanis out indefinitely because of shoulder surgery, Thomas is the Penguins' only right-handed center and is routinely called upon to handle faceoffs in the defensive zone, the most compelling evidence possible of coach Michel Therrien's confidence in him.
It likely isn't coincidental that the Penguins began to struggle around the time Zigomanis was injured Dec. 3 against the Rangers in New York. When it became apparent that he would be out for an extended period, the Penguins began the search for someone to take over as a go-to faceoff man.
"Since we lost Zigomanis, we're looking for guys [to handle draws]," Therrien said. "Sometimes, you look around the league and try to replace a guy like Zigomanis, who was doing a great job for us, and the solution comes from within."
Zigomanis and Thomas were together in the Phoenix organization -- both with the Coyotes and their American Hockey League affiliate in San Antonio -- the past two seasons, but Thomas didn't pick up any pointers from him because faceoffs weren't in his job description.
"I didn't take any faceoffs in Phoenix, and I really didn't take any in San Antonio," said Thomas, a Fox Chapel High School graduate. "That just came about recently with Wilkes-Barre."
There are times when his lack of experience shows, like when he lost five of six draws in the Penguins' 3-0 loss Sunday to Detroit, but there's no shame in being beaten by the likes of Kris Draper, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
"He played against a team that's probably the best in the league at winning faceoffs," Therrien said. "You can't judge on one game."
Thomas allowed that he "had a pretty tough time against Detroit," but clearly didn't dwell on the negatives of that game because he rebounded with an strong showing in the Penguins' 2-1 shootout victory Wednesday against San Jose.
He not only went 5-4 on faceoffs, but scored the Penguins' only goal -- his first since signing with them as a free agent last summer -- in regulation, when his centering attempt from behind the Sharks' goal line hit the stick of defenseman Rob Blake and skidded past goalie Brian Boucher.
The Penguins appreciate that kind of contribution to their offense, of course, but Thomas' primary duties are handling faceoffs and killing penalties.
He is averaging nine minutes, 24 seconds of ice time per game, with two minutes, 18 seconds of that coming while the Penguins are short-handed.
"He kills penalties really well," said Therrien. "He skates well, has a good stick. His bread-and-butter right now is to kill penalties."
There's not much glory in that kind of work, but Thomas isn't complaining about the role in which he has been cast.
"I'm fine with that," he said. "Everyone has to make a living."
And Thomas just might continue to cash NHL paychecks if he can avoid a decline in the caliber of his work, a common problem with players promoted from the minors.
"When he got here, I was really straight up with him," Therrien said. "Usually, that type of player, they're really high when they come in, but they have a hard time maintaining their quality of play. They slip.
"I told him, 'If you slip, you're going to have a hard time remaining in the NHL. You have to maintain the level of play you're capable of giving us.' And, right now, he's all right."
NOTES -- Winger Ruslan Fedotenko, out since Jan. 6 with a broken right hand, said he hopes to be ready to play when the Penguins visit Toronto at 7:08 p.m. tomorrow. Fedotenko handled and shot the puck with no apparent problem during practice yesterday at Southpointe. ... Center Sidney Crosby sat out practice because of a flu-like ailment that has bothered him for several days.
First Published February 13, 2009 12:00 am