As minute one of the overtime period the St. Louis Blues played against the Minnesota Wild on Apr. 8 expired, the Blues had not touched the puck. 27 seconds later, they were celebrating together victorious, thanks to a play almost entirely created and ultimately finished by 22-year-old center Robert Thomas. The Aurora, Ontario native took a pass near his own circle along the boards, raced up ice, and passed to teammate Vladimir Tarasenko as they crisscrossed entering the zone. Thomas drifted to the goalie’s right as the defense fixated on the presumed scoring threat, Tarasenko, but then the Russian delivered the puck back to the wide-open Thomas, who connected on a thunderous one-timer to score the game-winning goal.
The goal was just one of many highlight-reel achievements this season for the young forward, who has recently drawn praise from a chorus of hockey voices, including analyst Jeff Marek, popular Twitter hockey stats expert @jfreshhockey, and even NHL veteran “tough guy” Sean Avery in a recent Instagram story (since expired). There is near-unanimous consent that Thomas is a rising and underrated star in the NHL. But where did he come from? What has changed this season? And just how good could he really be?
Standout OHL Career with London Knights and Hamilton Bulldogs
The idea that Thomas could become an NHL star isn’t exactly new. He was a standout prospect in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), spending most of his career with the London Knights before a final season trade to the Hamilton Bulldogs. In his draft profiles, Thomas was noted for his offensive creativity, his leadership, and his high hockey IQ, and he drew frequent comparisons to the now-captain of the Vancouver Canucks, Bo Horvat (himself a former Knight). Even so, most analysts considered Thomas a fringe first-round or high second-round prospect, and some believed the Blues reached to draft him with the 20th pick.
Thomas wasted no time proving doubters wrong in what would become his final OHL season, scoring 75 points in 49 games between London and Hamilton. That season, he went to the World Junior Championship and won gold alongside future Blues teammate Jordan Kyrou, notching six points in seven games in the process. Then, he took over the OHL postseason, scoring 12 goals, 20 assists, and 32 points in 21 games, leading Hamilton to an OHL Championship and winning the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award for OHL Playoffs MVP. The Blues had seen enough to give him a good look coming into training camp, knowing that he’d accomplished everything he could at the junior hockey level (where they’d have to send him if he didn’t make the team).
Contributions to the Stanley Cup, Need for Improvement
Thomas did make the Blues roster out of camp and began his NHL career at just 19. There was plenty of excitement surrounding the Blues, with the offseason acquisition of Ryan O’Reilly and the wealth of young players joining the squad. Kyrou, Thomas’s former Team Canada teammate and close friend, also made the team initially. Unlike Thomas, he could play in the American Hockey League and would spend most of the season there. But Thomas’s NHL spot has never been in question. He did enough to erase any idea of returning him to the OHL and scored 33 points in 70 games in his first season. The Blues completed a miraculous turnaround to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and he got his first opportunity to really shine.
Related: Blues Should Prioritize O’Reilly, Kyrou, and Thomas in Long-Term Plans
Thomas did not contribute a ton on the stat sheet in the postseason, collecting six points and only one goal. But he is mostly responsible for arguably the most pivotal goal of the entire playoff run when his stick-handling and shot off the post created the easy rebound goal by Pat Maroon that sent the Blues through double overtime in Game 7 to the Western Conference Final. It was an iconic moment, the best in franchise history to that point, and the youngster played a leading role. He would be injured and miss time during the Final, but would still get to hoist the Stanley Cup in his rookie season, joining the first group of Blues players ever to do that.
Since then, Thomas has been improving his game slowly, while fans waited anxiously for the sudden breakout to materialize. He scored 42 points in 66 games in the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. But the 2020-21 campaign seemed like a step back. His defensive game was not maturing very quickly, and he still couldn’t win faceoffs at much more than a 42 percent clip. The skill was obviously there, but something needed to change for him to realize his full potential.
Thomas Explodes in 2021-22
The two-year, $5.6 million contract Thomas signed entering this season signaled his status: a young player in transition. Neither the team nor the player was willing to commit to a long-term deal based on the final season of his entry-level contract (ELC). Though the salary cap situation played a significant role, the team also had misgivings about Thomas’ commitment in the offseason. In a mailbag, Blues’ beat reporter Jeremy Rutherford pulled no punches answering a question about the young center’s offseason regimen: “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).
We might never know how much of Thomas’ improvement had to do directly with the offseason work, but the results are remarkable. At this writing, Thomas has 65 points in 63 games, currently in a three-way tie for first place on the team. Due to a recent goal-scoring surge, he now has 18 goals and is poised to become the eighth forward on the team to hit the 20-goal mark this season. Oh, and the faceoff rate has massively improved, too. He now wins just over 50 percent of his draws on the season, giving head coach Craig Berube the confidence to put him on the ice in any situation.
But the overall numbers barely capture just how transformed Thomas looks in recent weeks. At this writing, has points in nine straight games. In that stretch, he has six goals and 11 assists, is plus-eight, and has recorded multiple points in 7 of the 9 games. His offensive explosion has led the Blues to five consecutive victories, in which time they’ve gone from panic mode to confident playoff contender. Now, as the playoffs approach, Thomas and his friend Kyrou will look to prove just how far they’ve come in a Blues uniform.
The Sky is the Limit
For a player like Thomas, there is almost no limit to just how good he can be. The elite hockey IQ and superelite playmaking ability and vision make him an ideal top-line center. Some, like @jfreshhockey, believe he is already one of the best playmakers in the NHL, and he is just 22. The defense game needs to mature, but that is almost universally true for young players. These playoffs will be a major test for the new Blues team, and Thomas will be leading the charge. Look for it to be his coming-out party to the entire NHL audience.