At the time of this writing, young center Robert Thomas of the St. Louis Blues remains the only unsigned restricted free agent (RFA) on the team’s roster. But that status is little more than a formality, as Thomas, still just 22, does not yet have arbitration rights. Likely, general manager Doug Armstrong is simply waiting for a trade of Vladimir Tarasenko to materialize to clear the necessary salary cap space to fit Thomas in.
Contract or not, though, the Blues view the young Aurora, Ontario native as a critical part of their team’s future. Drafted in the first round in 2017, Thomas immediately became one of the team’s top prospects and has remained one of the team’s most promising young players ever since. Indeed, many projected a breakout season for him last season, but early struggles and a serious injury prevented that from materializing. Even so, the 2021-22 season may be his best opportunity to break out yet, thanks to a pair of new teammates, a clearer role, and an improved offseason routine.
Saad, Buchnevich Will Help Thomas
Over the summer, the Blues acquired Pavel Buchnevich via trade, and then signed unrestricted free-agent Brandon Saad to a five-year contract. The two players combined for 35 goals in the truncated 2020-21 season. Saad’s 15 in 44 games would be a 28-goal pace in a full, healthy season, and Buchnevich’s 20 goals in 54 games was a 30-goal pace. Adding almost sixty goals to the top-six will vastly improve the team’s goal-scoring abilities, which ranked 13th last season. But that rate arguably outperformed the Blues’ expectation, as the team finished second-to-last in expected goals for (xGF) and dead last in high danger chances for (HDCF) at 5-on-5.
Thomas will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new arrivals, as he is likely to play alongside one or both players for much of the season. The youngster is virtually certain to tie down the second-line center role (as we’ll discuss in a moment), and in so doing, he will get plenty of playing time with these two top-six forwards. Thomas and Buchnevich could be a particularly dynamic scoring combination. Rarely has Thomas gotten to play with a player as creative and dangerous as Buchnevich.
The Blues have undergone a significant transformation this summer. Both Jaden Schwartz and Mike Hoffman departed in free agency, and third-line center Tyler Bozak remains unsigned at this point. With the expected trade of Tarasenko, three spots in the top six have cleared up, and in all likelihood, Thomas will be expected to fill one of those slots.
Teammate Brayden Schenn has expressed his desire to play at center in the past. But coming off of a disappointing season, and with the need for three proven wingers in the top six, the Blues will likely ask him to move to the wing and allow Thomas to occupy a top-six spot. The future of the team at center starts with him, and the franchise needs to know whether he can truly evolve into a top-six center before Ryan O’Reilly’s contract expires after the 2022-23 season. They will need Thomas to get every opportunity to establish himself before then, and head coach Craig Berube has shown more willingness to rely on him than other young players, including Jordan Kyrou.
Improved Offseason Routine
As already mentioned, many expected Thomas to have a breakout campaign last season, but he disappointed those expectations severely. He finished with just 12 points in 33 games. And while much of that lost time connects to a broken thumb he suffered in February, there’s no denying that his start was flat-out ugly. He had six points in twelve games before going down to injury, but four of those points came in two multi-assist games. He looked lost on the ice, and at points didn’t seem to have the stamina and conditioning to keep up with the demand after a strange offseason.
It turns out, there may be an explanation for those early-season struggles. In a recent mailbag article on The Athletic, Blues beat reporter Jeremy Rutherford answered a question about Thomas’ offseason training regimen, and he didn’t pull any punches: “Yes, the Blues were very clear with Thomas that his offseason training needed to improve, and I’m told that he has taken it very seriously” (from ‘What’s the latest on the Blues and Vladimir Tarasenko? Who’s interested? Hurricanes? Rangers? Islanders? Sabres? Mailbag,’ The Athletic NHL, Aug. 29, 2021).
Though Rutherford signaled that such offseason changes have had “mixed results” for other players in the past, he must have confidence in Thomas’ transformation. When asked in the same article for his bold prediction for a Blues player this season, he responded simply, “Thomas will have 50 assists.” It would be a massive jump from a career-high of 32 assists and 10 goals in 66 games in 2019-20. But it’s not impossible under the circumstances.
Primed for Success
Expectations for Thomas have always been high, but that points to what a special player the former Ontario Hockey League (OHL) standout was in his junior career. He hasn’t quite fully realized his potential in the NHL yet, though he was a critical part of the team’s Stanley Cup success in the 2019 playoffs. 2021-22 will be his best opportunity yet to prove that he’s a true top-six center at the highest level. But Blues fans should be optimistic: there’s every reason to believe this will be his breakout campaign.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.