Thomas Harley’s World Juniors Performance Showcased Prospect’s Development Progress

Previously known best for his transitional and offensive play, Harley’s defensive game has taken huge strides.

When the Dallas Stars advanced to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final this past summer against the Tampa Bay Lightning, prospect Thomas Harley was there.

Sure, he wasn’t actually getting into games, but he was there. He was in the bubble environment with the team up in Edmonton, he was skating in practices, he was learning from the coaching staff, he was learning from his teammates. And while actual game experience is the best way to learn and develop as a prospect, those few months that Harley lived through have to be the next best thing.

Just how much did he improve as a player from that experience? We got to find out recently, after the 19-year-old took part in the 2021 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.

First, a little background on Harley. For my money, he is the best prospect in the Stars organization right now, as was reflected in the December 2020 edition of my Dallas Stars Prospect Rankings. He is a magnificent skater who glides around the ice quickly and fluidly with his long, strong strides. His puck skills are also superb, as he is able to stickhandle the puck out of trouble and cleanly thread tape-to-tape passes. And when you add those elements to Harley’s 6-foot-3 frame, what you get is a unique type of player who can help his team in a number of different ways.

However, the Stars were able to grab Harley down at 18th overall in the 2019 draft for certain reasons: his decision-making with the puck and his play without it were occasionally problems.

(A small aside: another reason why Harley was still available at 18th overall is that the first round of the 2019 draft was ridiculously deep. In a weaker year, such as the 2021 draft is currently shaping up to be, a prospect like him could be a contender for the top 10).

In his draft year Harley would, at times, get caught puck-watching in his own zone, he would lose his man in coverage, he would lose physical battles that he should have won. These problems improved in the following season, thanks to development help from his Mississauga Steelheads team, development help from the Stars, and his own personal growth as a player, but they were still there. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a hockey prospect’s development isn’t complete after just one season.

But much like the Pax Romana, Harley appears to have gone through an especially expansive period of growth recently, boosted by his time in the Stars’ playoff bubble and as evidenced by his play at the World Juniors.

Playing on Canada’s second defensive pairing and averaging just under 20 minutes of ice time per game, Harley was a rock for his team. And it happened in a way that hadn’t fully been seen up to this point from the young defender.

When Harley is playing for the Steelheads, the puck is on his stick a lot — a lot, a lot. They’re a young team without a ton of talent, and Harley is their undisputed leader on the back end, logging more than 30 minutes of ice time on a fairly frequent basis. They ask him to do everything for the team, and Harley obliges. And with the keys to the car and a green light in front of him, that is when Harley does some of his best work. Utilizing the tools that were mentioned a few paragraphs above, he is a stellar transitional player and offensive contributor, who is able to help crack opposing defenses through both the rush and from the offensive blue line.

What we saw from him at the World Juniors, though, was different. Forced into a divergent role and reduced ice time, Harley was much more reserved and defensive-oriented — and he looked great doing it.

What stood out the most, to me, was his overall poise.

Shift after shift, Harley was riding the flow of play and in control of his responsibilities. He must have been frustrating for opposing players, because his gap control and positional play were suffocating. When the opposing offensive play came to him, he almost always successfully shut it down or turned it around, whether by winning foot races, knocking pucks off of sticks, playing the body, or by winning body positioning. His defensive decisions with the puck were also nearly flawless, skating it out of trouble himself or making methodical passes to alleviate pressure or jumpstart transition.

Harley’s play at the World Juniors wasn’t flashy or exciting, but it was effective. And more importantly, it was professional — the type of play that defensemen need to deploy most often at the NHL level. Pulling off an end-to-end rush is exciting, but the right times to try it at the sport’s highest level are rare, and unless your name is Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes it’s usually not worth the risk to try forcing it. Whenever Harley starts getting more games in the NHL this is the type of style that he’ll have to play first, before he finds his comfort level and adjusts to the pace well enough to take calculated risks.

In the seven-game sample size, Harley finished with a tournament-high plus-minus rating of +14 and was only on the ice for a single goal against, which came while he was killing a penalty after a puck deflected in off of his stick.

Now, I will say that Harley was dialed back a little bit more than he needed to be at times. There were moments where he jumped into the rush and tried to make something big happen, but there were also a lot of times where he could have taken a chance or made a calculated risk but instead opted for the safest option. He finished the event with a single goal and no assists, and that single goal came late in Canada’s rout over a short-staffed Germany team.

Maybe his dialed-back approach was because of coaching, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was him trying to showcase to Dallas brass that he is consistent enough and trustworthy enough to play a supporting role in the NHL soon — maybe it was all three, or maybe none of the above. Either way, it’s not something that should be a concern. He has already shown what he can accomplish when he has the green light, and he’ll remember how to do that the next time his coach says “Go.”

It’s unlikely that Harley finds himself as an NHL regular for this upcoming (maybe upcoming?) season. He could stay with the Stars as part of their “taxi squad” until the OHL resumes play, or maybe even head to the AHL even though he normally wouldn’t be eligible to do so because of his age, an emergency change that is being discussed. But if his play at the World Juniors showcased anything, it’s that him spending time in Dallas for good is not that far off.