Philip Tomasino wanted more heading into his second season with the Niagara IceDogs.

Having played a supporting role as a rookie, the Mississauga native worked hard over the summer and was determined to make an impact in his NHL draft year.

That opportunity for a bigger role presented itself when IceDogs star centre Akil Thomas went down with an injury in early November and coaches turned to him to fill the void down the middle on one of the team’s top two lines.

Tomasino hasn’t looked back since.

After collecting just five goals and 19 points in 61 games as a rookie, the speedy Niagara forward has taken his game to a whole other level this year, finishing the regular season with 34 goals and 38 assists for 72 points in 67 games.

That’s certainly put him on the radar for this year’s NHL Entry Draft being held in Vancouver, B.C. on June 21-22. The 17-year-old is ranked 24 in the NHL Central Scouting Midterm Rankings among North American skaters.

“Obviously you don’t want to see that,” Tomasino said of Thomas getting injured. “He’s arguably the best player on our team, and he’s a great guy for sure, but it gave me an opportunity to play more minutes with some different guys and I think I really elevated my game from that point onwards.

“I think now with the additions of key guys on the team, we’ve really stepped it up. It’s definitely been fun for sure.”

That his young forward has found success in his second season with the club doesn’t come as a surprise to IceDogs head coach Billy Burke. Not after he had seen the results of the work he had put in over the summer.

“He came back, his body was completely different,” Burke said of Tomasino. “He looked like a man. He didn’t play much as a 16-year-old. He played every game, but he didn’t play a lot. Just like a lot of young guys, kind of finding his way.

“He came back, had the opportunity to play with some good players and had a good camp. He kind of stumbled a bit at the start of the season. We had an injury to Akil, so we moved Tomas right up to that first or second line centre role and he’s just exploded since then. His confidence, his decision making, he just seems to keep getting better. He can compliment good players, he just doesn’t hang on with good players. He makes them better. With his electric speed and game-breaking ability, he’s been a great asset for us.”

Tomasino not only took advantage of his opportunity, but the six-foot, 180-pound sniper sent the message to Burke and the coaching staff that he could be counted on to play a leading role.

“A 100 per cent he did,” said Burke of Tomasino, who lead the OHL with 12 game-winning goals. “We knew we were going to try and get older, we knew that we were going to bring in more veteran players and he has been outstanding. He cemented himself in that top group with us.

“No matter what, he’s a guy I can rely on. He’s right up there in league leaders for game-winning goals and I think that says a lot about him.”

A big smile comes across Tomasino’s face when asked about all the talent in that Niagara dressing room. Dallas Stars prospect Jason Robertson, who won the OHL scoring title and Boston Bruins prospect Sam Studnicka are just two of nine players who have been drafted by an NHL team.

All part of a Niagara team that posted an impressive 44-17-7-0 record to win the Central Division title and is considered an OHL championship contender.

“We have a lot of strong guys for sure, especially on our backend and goaltending, and obviously our forwards,” said Tomasino, who was Niagara’s fifth overall pick in the 2017 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection. “It’s so fun to play with them too. They make plays at high speeds, for sure. It’s so easy to get open with them and to find that open ice and go make plays with them.

“They’re definitely great guys on and off the ice and I’ve learned a lot playing with them. I enjoy playing with them.”

Tomasino says he’s focused on improving his all-around game this season. He admits physically he needs to continue to get stronger, where it well help his play along the boards and winning puck battles.

Being his draft season, he knew it was a big year for him. Still the talented centre has tried to put any thought of that aside and focused on what’s important right now. That’s winning hockey games and helping his team in their first-round playoff series against the North Bay Battalion.

“Obviously you want to elevate your game and you know this is the right time for sure,” he said. “This is a big year for me, but I always say right now my main focus is to win every game, every night. I know we really have a strong team here and you want to win a Memorial Cup. That’s my focus right now and pretty much the focus in the room right now.

“We’re definitely motivated to follow that goal and the draft follows when the season is over, so right now I’m focused on finishing the season strong here and the draft will take care of itself after.”

That kind of attitude is no surprise for Burke, who says his forward his is all hockey first.

“He’s very determined,” the head coach explained. “He’s very confident without crossing the line into overconfidence or cockiness. He believes in his ability as a fantastic teammate. He’s doesn’t just say it, he means it.

“Winning is the most important thing to him and if he can score and get points to help us great, but if he needs to block a shot or just give us solid minutes as long as we’re winning that’s all that matters. He’s definitely a guy I see being a leader for us next year and going forward.”

 

photo: Mississauga’s Philip Tomasino has taken his game to a whole other level in his second season with the Niagara IceDogs. The speedy forward is one of the top prospects for this 2019 NHL Entry Draft being held June 21-22 in Vancouver, B.C. Terry Wilson/OHL Images

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