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Let’s Remember a Devils Guy: Steve Thomas

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With the NHL’s return to play in limbo at the moment, let’s take this opportunity to remember a Guy in Devils history: Steve Thomas. We salute his three brilliantly mundane years in New Jersey.

New Jersey Devils v Toronto Maple Leafs
Remember this Guy?
Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images

With the NHL in some kind of stasis due to the surging conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of financial certainty surrounding a return to play, we are again floating aimlessly through hockey-free days for some yet-to-be-determined amount of time until teams are back on the ice. With that, the Devils unending offseason marches on. We’ve analyzed and re-analyzed the team’s current roster half to death here at AAtJ, such that some of the writers here have entered a state of delirium. I’m running out of words to say in terms of speculating what the team could or should do in regards to the upcoming season, so today I will turn my gaze toward the past in the first of a maybe multiple-part series: Let’s Remember a Devils Guy.

What is a Guy? Well, I explained it at length in a post from the very beginning of the pandemic where, borrowing from a format popularized by the bloggers at Defector (and previously Deadspin), I listed out a dozen or so Guys that I remembered and implored the readership to do the same (you all did a quality job, read through the comments in that post for some solid Guy-remembering). For a refresher, I will repost my explanation in full here:

What constitutes a Guy? The true essence can be tough to capture and each person’s definition will be a little different, but generally speaking, it’s a player who did enough to be remembered but also didn’t do so much that they are particularly memorable (at least broadly speaking). For example, Patrik Elias is not a Guy, nor are Scott Stevens or Martin Brodeur. They are franchise legends with retired numbers and if you follow the Devils even casually, you are unlikely to have a moment along the lines of “oh yeah, I remember that guy,” which is an essential aspect of Guy-remembering.

There are also players who are short of legend/HOF status who do not fit the bill. From a Devils-fan perspective, someone like Claude Lemieux does not qualify as a Guy. He is far too important to franchise lore to drift from being consistently remembered. Similarly, Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora aren’t really guys, nor are players like John MacLean or Kirk Muller who helped define different eras of Devils hockey. Guy-hood is also perspective dependent, though. For instance, Sergei Brylin doesn’t really qualify as a Guy for a Devils fan. He won three cups here and is too much of a franchise cult hero to blend fully into the background. For a general NHL fan, though, he likely has a very high Guy Quotient. There’s no reason for a random Capitals or Canadiens fan to remember much about Sergei Brylin other than perhaps that he existed and did hockey things for the Devils at some point. He is a fairly prototypical Guy outside the organization, even though he has a lot more cachet in the Garden State.

You also have to cross some threshold of notoriety to become a Guy, though. Just being a part of the organization at some point doesn’t get you there. Reaching for an example, lets go with Dave Emma. He played 23 games for the Devils across three seasons in the 90s, but didn’t really do much and disappeared from the league shortly after besides a couple cups of coffee in Boston and Florida multiple years later. I have no memory of Dave Emma, nor is it a name I would have even really linked to the Devils without flipping through random Hockey Reference pages for assorted Devils teams. There’s a certain threshold of notoriety/success in the league you need to hit to and, with apologies to Mr. Emma, I don’t think he gets there. Not a Guy.

If you want the less long-winded explanation, it’s this: you know a Guy when you see one.

With all of that out of the way, let’s move on to the man of the day. If you listed this player’s career stat line, you would assume he is a player of some repute. Over 20 NHL seasons, he played 1235 games and racked up 933 points. He was in the playoffs 16 times over his career and added 107 points in 174 games in the postseason. He had an 87-point season and also put up over 40 goals one time. He has more points than any British-born player in the history of the league. He has a hilarious nickname (Stumpy). He played three full seasons with the Devils on the back end of his ostensible prime. But this player, Steve Thomas, is absolutely in the Guy wheelhouse, particularly as it relates to the New Jersey Devils.

If I try to conjure a specific image from Steve Thomas’ time with the Devils in my head, I pretty much come up empty. My most vivid recollections of Steve Thomas are from playing NHL 97 and hearing the announcer say “Goal scored by, #9... NEAL BROTEN. Assisted by... STEVE THOMAS.” Steve Thomas’ biggest claim to fame in New Jersey is firmly that he was the Guy that came back the other way in the Claude Lemieux trade and then was part of some of the more disappointing teams in Devils history. As a bruiser of a winger who got into a pretty decent amount of fights and scored a bunch of goals over his career, Thomas seems like exactly the type of guy who would be pretty memorable. He even led the Devils in scoring his first year with the team. And yet...

Given what is a fairly impressive career, is it fair to call Steve Thomas a Guy? Perhaps fans of other teams regard him as more than that. Before they made it back this summer, Thomas was a player who was instrumental in leading the Islanders to their previous most recent conference finals appearance in 1993, so he is probably more than just a Guy on Long Island. He started his career in Toronto and also returned to play a part on a couple exciting late-90s Leafs teams, so he might have a little more cachet there, too. Here in the confines of New Jersey, though, he is almost aggressively unmemorable for a guy with his resume. Part of that can be chalked up to him being a part of the disappointing post-95 Cup squads that lacked signature moments, but even among those teams he was also overshadowed by the other more memorable Devils interlopers in that era like Dave Andreychuk and Doug Gilmour.

A friend in a group chat the other day mentioned that he hated Steve Thomas during a discussion of the 90’s Devils, which was by far the most passionate opinion I’ve ever heard shared by a Devils fan regarding ol’ Stumpy. I was blown away, as the most animated response I’d heard over the past decade or so to the rare mention of Steve Thomas was typically, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy.” Being the guy received back in a trade for Conn Smythe-winner Claude Lemieux was always going to put Thomas behind the 8-ball in New Jersey (John got into those dynamics a bit over the summer in his post on the Lemieux trades). The fact that Thomas was decent but unspectacular over his three seasons with the Devils kept him from being a pariah, but it also made him somewhat anonymous in retrospect. You certainly couldn’t blame him for the failure in 1996, given he led the team in scoring, and there were bigger fish to fry in the disappointments of 1997 and 1998 (though Thomas was a dud in the 97 playoffs). Mostly, he was just there.

Whatever your assessment of Steve Thomas’ career as a whole, his inherent Devils Guy-ness is linked to his status as a journeyman and the forgettable nature of his years in New Jersey. He showed up, he scored some goals, he got in some fights, he put up five total postseason points, and then he left. Classic Guy move. For a perfect distillation of this, we go to Steve Thomas’ Wikipedia page. Under the “Playing Career” section, every single stop in his hockey career, including his junior and AHL teams, gets a shoutout, except for the conspicuous absence of his three years in New Jersey. Here’s the narrative spanning 1992-93 to 2001-02 on his page:

In the 1992–93 season, Thomas scored 37 goals and 50 assists for a career-high of 87 points. During the playoffs, when Islanders superstar Pierre Turgeon was injured by a Dale Hunter check in the first round, Thomas and teammate Ray Ferraro emerged as the unlikely heroes of the Islander’s playoff run. Both made the top ten in postseason scoring as the Islanders made their Cinderella run to the Prince of Wales Conference finals. The next year, he set a career-high in goals with 42.

Thomas had second stints with the Leafs (1998–2001) and Chicago (2001–2002) before moving to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. His career looked to be over with Chicago, however the trade to the Ducks instantly rejuvenated his career.

The person/people who wrote this literally just skipped the time in New Jersey! Not even a mention, like he vanished for three years and resurfaced in Toronto in 1998! Perfect. Fun fact: Steve Thomas only ever led one NHL team in scoring — the 1995-96 New Jersey Devils. And yet, the actual most memorable thing Steve Thomas ever did involving the Devils was probably the OT goal he scored against them in Game 4 for Anaheim in 2003 Cup Final (notably his first Cup Final at age 39). He scored more postseason goals in that series (2) than he did in his three-year stay in New Jersey (1).

So here’s to you, Steve Thomas. You certainly did appear in 193 regular season games with the Devils between 1995 and 1998. Remember that? I sort of do. Cheers, mate (he’s British).

With that, I leave you, the readers, with one last question: Hey, remember Steve Thomas?