The St. Louis Blues played their seventh game of the season on Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and for the second straight game, top prospect Robert Thomas was scratched from the lineup. Despite the Blues’ victory, it’s a concerning trend for the 19-year-old, who was consistently ranked amongst the league’s top prospects entering the season.
The repeated scratches have led some fans to question whether head coach Mike Yeo is falling into an old pattern. Yeo has frequently been criticized for mismanaging young talents, and some fear that Thomas will be just another victim of that mismanagement as long as Yeo remains the coach in St. Louis. But is that a fair evaluation of either Thomas or Yeo? Or is there more to the story?
So far, Thomas has played in five of the team’s seven games, averaging under nine minutes (8:51) a game. That number would be even lower but for the fact that Thomas was deployed for 11:12 in the first game of the season against the Winnipeg Jets. Thomas has understandably been relegated to a fourth line role, as the Blues’ busy offseason brought in two centers in Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak.
But early in the season, there were hints that a fourth line role wouldn’t mean paltry minutes for players like Thomas. He and his young line mates Sammy Blais and Ivan Barbashev were expected to form a “new look” fourth line that would be given 10-plus minutes a game and would be used in a more significant and dynamic role than a typical fourth line.
That has not been the case. In his limited minutes, Thomas has gathered only one point, an assist, and has posted a very poor CF% of 36.4. Still, it’s difficult to know whether that’s due to a lackluster start from Thomas himself, or the roles and opportunities he’s been deployed in.
Yeo says Thomas is out, Sanford is in tonight. He says Thomas is trying to find his confidence and may be a little worried about his 9-game trial. #stlblues
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) October 17, 2018
Whatever the cause, Yeo decided after five games that Thomas needed a break, and has scratched him for the first two games of the Canada trip. The coach hopes that Thomas’ time in the press box will help him build confidence, something that may be lacking with an important deadline looming.
Like many 18 and 19-year-old players in the NHL, Thomas finds himself somewhat handicapped by a pair of rules about young players. First, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL, the umbrella organization that oversees all three Canadian major junior hockey leagues) and the NHL have an agreement which states that any player whose rights belong to a CHL team must play for that CHL team unless his NHL team wishes to retain him. This means that Thomas is not eligible to play for the Blues’ AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, this season.
But another rule makes things even trickier for Thomas and the Blues. NHL teams are given some flexibility with “the slide rule,” which allows them to “slide” a player’s contract back to his CHL team (or another affiliate such as a European team or the AHL club) as long as the player does not exceed nine games played in the NHL. Sliding the contract back allows the NHL team to not burn a year of the player’s contract, a huge value in a salary cap league.
So, having played in five games already, Thomas only has four more opportunities to make his mark in the NHL before the team has to decide whether he stays or returns to the Hamilton Bulldogs, his CHL team. Last season, Thomas dominated in the CHL, leading his team to the Memorial Cup and winning the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the MVP of the OHL playoffs. So logic demands that there isn’t much to be gained for Thomas by spending another year at the junior level. But if playing time isn’t consistently available with the Blues, that decision will become more difficult for general manager Doug Armstrong.
Making Thomas’ situation more troubling for Blues fans is Yeo’s history with young players. An over reliance on veterans and an inability to cultivate young talent were two of the primary reasons Yeo was ousted in Minnesota in 2016. Particularly troublesome is the test case of Mikael Granlund, a center who was once considered the top prospect in hockey by some, who Yeo deployed on the fourth line with inconsistent playing time and occasionally scratched altogether.
Yeo’s treatment of players like Granlund was part of the reason he was ultimately let go, and it seems that he’s yet to learn his lesson. Granlund, for his part, has recorded 69 and 67 points in the two seasons since Yeo left Minnesota. While it’s still very early in Thomas’ career, there are too many similarities between these two stories to ignore them. Of course, Thomas can’t have an endless leash, but he needs to be given some confidence that one missed play won’t result in an immediate benching.
Yeo has been entrusted with probably the best prospect class the Blues have had since the likes of David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and David Perron arrived around the same time in St. Louis. The team cannot afford for him to punish and misuse these players, and the front office needs to monitor and even reel in Yeo if he fails on this front.
The Blues have just one win under their belt on the season, and they need to deploy their best lineup every night; however, Robert Thomas also needs to get consistent playing time. It still doesn’t make much sense to relegate Thomas to the CHL, a league he has dominated two years in a row, but if he cannot be guaranteed starts and playing time in the NHL, that may become his fate.
Yeo on Thomas: “We’re going to get him back in the lineup. This is what we chose to go with tonight, but he’s going to get back in the lineup.” #stlblues
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) October 20, 2018
The Blues, and particularly Armstrong, seem torn between whether they are more concerned with winning immediately or with fostering the careers of their best prospect class in years. But these need not be mutually exclusive. Thomas and Jordan Kyrou are the caliber of players that should be able to make significant impacts if they are afforded the opportunity to do so. That decision rests on Mike Yeo, and the Blues need him to show that he’s learned from the mistakes of his past and is willing to trust young players, a hallmark of successful, modern NHL teams.
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.