Toms is placing talent on display  

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Like all competitive athletes, Connor Toms is determined to play at the highest level possible.

Which is why the 16-year-old (2004 birth year) defenceman is determined to win a roster spot with the 2020-2021 Soo Greyhounds, the team which chose him in the third round (44th overall) in the 2020 Ontario Hockey League draft.

However, with the OHL season delayed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and not slated to begin until Feb. 4, 2021 – if then – Toms said he’s “happy right now” playing for the Soo Thunderbirds.

The five-foot-10, 160-pound Sault native turned in back-to-back strong performances on the weekend as the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League team skated to a pair of exhibition victories over the Blind River Beavers.

If all goes according to plan, the NOJHL will begin its regular season this weekend, with the T-Birds slated to entertain the Beavers on 7 p.m. Saturday at John Rhodes Community Centre.

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The same two clubs are also slated to meet on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Blind River.

“I was pleased,” Toms said when asked to assess his play during the preseason. “I thought I showed my skill level breaking pucks out and joining the play. I also thought I did pretty well on the power play.”

T-Birds head coach Denny Lambert agreed with the young player’s assessment.

“I’m extremely happy with him,” said Lambert. “He’s making the strides he should be. As a coach, watching young players develop is exciting.”

Specifically, Lambert likes the way in which Toms displays a calmness on the Soo blue-line.

“It’s through the roof,” the coach said of that aspect of the defenceman’s game. “He’s comfortable making a tight play, which is hard to find in a young defenceman. His hockey sense is also through the roof.”

Beyond that, Lambert also spoke of how smooth of a skater Toms is – “His skating will be elite,” the coach predicted – and how well he shoots the puck.

“Reminds me of Jake Muzzin with the way he releases his shot,” said Lambert, who, beginning in 2006, worked with the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman for two seasons as a Soo Greyhounds assistant and two additional seasons as their head coach.

Lambert went on to discuss how coachable Toms, who skated last season for the Soo Greyhounds of the Great North Midget League, has proven to be.

The young rearguard was used to help anchor the Thunderbirds power play during their exhibition wins over the Beavers.

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Lambert talked about making “small corrections” to the way in which Toms played with the man advantage during Friday’s 6-1 win at John Rhodes Community Centre.

The T-Birds were 7-4 winners on Saturday in Blind River.

“He made the adjustments on Saturday and that was great,” the coach added. “Because of that, our power play has become more dangerous. And he (Toms) showed me he is very coachable.”

Because of the pandemic, the OHL season has been shortened to no more than 40 regular season games – and perhaps fewer – with a plan in place to have no more than four teams from each conference in the playoffs.

Under those circumstances, a team such as the 2020-2021 Greyhounds will likely be less inclined to focus on developing their youngsters.

They could decide to have Toms, a player they have high expectations for, spend the season in the NOJHL.

If that were to happen, Toms spoke of “keeping a positive attitude. I know my chance will come. I just want to develop all facets of my game.”

To that end, Lambert offers the same advice he’d give to all young players.

“It’s important for him to keep working on the defensive side of his game,” the coach said.

Asked about the caliber of play he’s witnessed to date in the NOJHL, Toms spoke of how “the pace was good, although the game was a little different without hitting.”

A rule banning body contact is among the changes the league has implemented due to COVID-19.

“But it was good hockey,” Toms added. “There was better positional play than in midget hockey and a higher skill level.”