The script for the 2020-21 season seemed to have already been written for St. Louis Blues center Robert Thomas before he ever stepped onto the ice. The budding young star was ready for his coming-of-age campaign, and this year’s story was primed to be a real page-turner.
But what was supposed to be a thriller, ended up being a comedy of errors for Thomas, who played in just 33 games this season. He contributed just three goals and nine assists for 12 points – far off the production expected of him. In his defense, he suffered a broken thumb in early February, then suffered an upper-body injury in April. Both severely limited his offensive numbers this year.
The 2017 first-round pick has been touted as a top-six forward since he first donned the Blues jersey and continued to demand more ice time, more responsibilities and a bigger role as his career moves along, according to Lou Korac of KSDK, a local St. Louis TV station.
“Thomas has been used up and down the lineup, going through mostly ups and some downs, but the learning curve has been quite beneficial in his two short NHL seasons, which has already included a Stanley Cup,” Korac reported in January.
Entering the 2020-21 season, Thomas had just 136 NHL regular-season games under his belt. “He’s being given the reigns of one of the scoring lines that will also be given big minutes, and be expected to make an impact,” Korac reported.
What Went Right
The promotion was meant to be Thomas’ big break – a chance to show the NHL his ability to be a top-line scorer.
“It’s really exciting,” Thomas told Korac. “It’s something I’ve worked the last two years for. I’ve tried my best to earn it and to feel that trust from the coaching staff is awesome and it kind of shows the hard work’s paid off to get me this chance and now I’ve just got to run away with it.”
Then Feb. 6 came, and life changed considerably for Thomas. He suffered a broken thumb in a game against the Arizona Coyotes that would put him out for the next six weeks – a huge chunk of the season. Thomas had just scored the Blues’ first (and only) goal of the game when he went out. Then, in April, he got hurt again in the 9-1 rout of the Minnesota Wild with an upper-body injury that would slow him for the rest of the season. He would only be out for two weeks, but the nagging injury seemed to have a lingering impact upon his play.
Early in the season, Blues forward Mike Hoffman was placed on a line with Thomas. He was eager to see the chemistry develop between the two, according to a story about Thomas by The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford in January (‘Without Mike Hoffman, Blues center Robert Thomas sparkles in season-opening win,” Jeremy Rutherford, The Athletic, 1/14/21).
“Just one day earlier, Hoffman was singing the praises of the 21-year-old,” Rutherford reported.
“He’s probably one of the best (centers) I’ve had with the puck,” Hoffman told The Athletic. “Another good righty that I played with when I was younger was (Mika) Zibanejad. Pretty similar tendencies. They can hold onto the puck, they can make plays, pretty big body coming up and down the ice. That’s probably my comparable to him right now, and I think he’s impressed me a lot. I didn’t really realize how good he actually was, but he’s probably one of the best with the puck. He can make plays not very many people can do.”
In a 4-1 victory over Colorado early in the season, Thomas had two assists, setting up the Blues’ first and fourth goals, and was a plus-2.
A huge bright spot for Thomas was late in the season when wins were at a premium as the playoff race got hot. Berube paired him with the young Jordan Kyrou. The line was very productive, even though St. Louis would whimper out of the playoffs after a four-game sweep. It gave fans and the team hope for what could be a very special combination. In St. Louis, that standard has been the “Hull and Oates” duo of Brett Hull and Adam Oates. No other duo has come close in its popularity with fans.
Thomas had perhaps his most memorable game in late April against the Wild, a 4-3 overtime win when he netted the game-winner with 23 seconds left to stop the Wild’s seven-game winning streak.
What Went Wrong
In November 2020, THW’s Stephen Ground wrote about how Thomas would be key to the Blues’ success in the season. Lofty goals and high expectations were placed on him.
“How high can Thomas climb? Playing center or on the wing for Schwartz and Schenn, he could potentially grow into a 60-plus point player,” Ground wrote. “But the point totals alone won’t define his season. Thomas needs to continue to grow as a leader, and a power-play contributor, to develop into a true number one center. But he has all the tools. 2020-21 will be a critical season for him.”
So that’s what went wrong – he didn’t ascend to the next level. He barely made his name known this year. You cannot blame the fans who were sold on Thomas by the media and team executives throughout the offseason that this was Thomas’ season to shine offensively.
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The native of Aurora, Ontario played 70 games as a rookie in 2018-19, finishing with 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists), then contributed six points (one goal, five assists) in 21 Stanley Cup playoff games to help the Blues win their first championship since entering the NHL in 1967.
Thomas signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Blues on Sept. 28, 2017, and was returned to London of the Ontario Hockey League. He helped Canada win the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship.
In his end-of-season moratorium and report card, Rutherford was not kind to Thomas, giving him a grade of D+. (‘‘This is embarrassing’: St. Louis Blues final 2020-21 report card following another first-round playoff loss, Jeremy Rutherford, The Athletic, 5/25/21).
“He started the season with a bang, netting two assists in a 4-1 victory over Colorado on opening night,” Rutherford wrote. “But then he seemed to disappear, and just when he seemed to get going again, he suffered a thumb injury that required surgery. He came back and started to get going again, but then a shoulder injury kept him out a couple more weeks. So injuries were definitely a factor, but for a player with a world of potential, he needs to be a lot more assertive when healthy.”
There are not many significant stats to make any kind of case for or against Thomas. Perhaps the number of games played is the best barometer. In just his third season, he competed in a career-low 33 games. In his second season in 2019-20, he played in 66 games and had 10 goals and 32 assists for a career-high 42 points. Staying healthy and on the ice was a constant challenge for Thomas, who went on the injured list twice.
Final Grade: Robert Thomas, C-
The debate here was whether to give Thomas an “incomplete” or issue a grade. The incomplete would have only told part of the story – the 23 games he missed to injury. Whether his lack of production stemmed from a slow rehab process or being shifted up and down the lineup and in and out of new line combinations, it was a forgettable year for Thomas.
What’s next? His name has come up in the rumors circulating about the Blues and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres. It is hard to believe the Blues would give up on their budding superstar after just one subpar season marred by injuries.
Look for the Blues to bank on Thomas and teammate Kyrou. Both players figure to be key in the team’s plans moving forward. Should the Blues part with Thomas? Can he be moved to attract a big-name star to come to the Gateway City?
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Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1