Thursday, June 28, 2018

Blues being careful with top prospect Thomas

2017 first-round pick healing from sprained ankle sustained in OHL title 
series; team wants center healthy, ready to crack opening night roster

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Robert Thomas has been in shorts and flip flops this week while his fellow Blues prospects compete on ice during prospect camp.

It's not the look Blues fans in attendance at the St. Louis Outlet Mall's Ice Zone were hoping for, or expecting to see. 

But that's OK with the Blues and Thomas, who is sitting out the on-ice activities but performing all tasks off the ice.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues 2017 first-round pick Robert Thomas, skating in the prospect camp
last summer, is sitting out this summer resting an ankle injury.

Thomas, the 20th pick in the 2017 NHL draft, sustained an ankle injury during the Ontario Hockey League championship series against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and was able to play through it, helping the Bulldogs to the OHL title before playing through it in four games during the 2018 Mastercard Memorial Cup.

But for someone with as much hype as Thomas, it's OK that the Blues are playing the cautious approach with him, especially when their plans include him in St. Louis when the 2018-19 NHL season opens.

"We're going to be very careful with him," Blue director of player development Tim Taylor said of Thomas. "Obviously he's one of our top prospects and at the end of the day, we want him ready to play in September and October for the St. Louis Blues."

Thomas, a center, is in a class of prospects the Blues have ranked at the top of their board, along with center Tage Thompson (2016 first round), right wing Jordan Kyrou (2016 second round) and right wing Klim Kostin (2017 first round).

"Obviously you want to be on the ice, but it's good to take it slow," Thomas said. "Obviously, it's still the end of June now, and you've just got to be ready for main camp."

Thomas represented Canada at the 2018 World Junior Championship before being traded from the London Knights to the Bulldogs before the Bulldogs won the OHL championship and played 81 games in all competitions, including seven for Canada, 49 regular-season games with the Knights and Bulldogs, 21 more with the Bulldogs in the OHL playoffs and four more competing with the Bulldogs in the Memorial Cup, where the Bulldogs finished third.

Thomas finished the OHL playoffs with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 21 games, winning the Wayne Gretzky '99' Award as OHL playoff MVP before getting two goals and one assist in four games during the Memorial Cup.

"It was definitely a long, eventful year, with the World Juniors, and then with the trade and the OHL championship," Thomas said. "So it was a lot of fun and it was a great experience for me. I got to experience a lot of things I hadn't before and learn from that. So it was a lot of fun this year."

Thomas, who had 75 points (24 goals, 51 assists) in 49 regular-season games, including 29 points (four goals, 25 assists) in 22 games with the Bulldogs, has a completely different mindset from a year ago when he was part of his first developmental camp.

"Yeah, I think for me, I've got to look at it as I still got a lot of work to do," Thomas said. "I've still got to have a great summer and be as prepared as I can coming into camp. Nothing's given obviously. So I've got to be ready to compete for a spot in camp and have a good camp."

The Blues are cautious when attempting to downplay their prospects and expectations, and Taylor tried that card, too, but it didn't go quite the way he intended, throwing out a few exemplary names when making comparisons for Thomas.

"No comparison to Sidney Crosby in the aspect on the ice, but he's got that kind of body structure as Sidney Crosby," Taylor said of Thomas. "Really heavy downloaded on the bottom side, real big legs and he plays exactly that with his style of play. A lot of skating, a lot of holding onto the puck and puck positioning. He's built like a hockey player right now. I wouldn't say a guy who's played 10 years in the league, but one of those young guys, the new age of hockey players where really legs are real strong and the torsos are real strong.

"... Not to throw names out there, but we believe he's like a Jonathan Toews for our team, a Patrice Bergeron, a guy that can go out and do everything. Right now, we don't want to put that pressure on him. We just want him to be the player that he is. But I think that we believe he has those leadership qualities. His structure on the ice is impeccable. His two-way game, two-way faceoffs were really good this year. We have high expectations for him and he has them for himself, too."
(file photo)
Blues prospect Robert Thomas played for Canada at the
2018 World Junior Championship in January.

Crosby, Toews, Bergeron ... no pressure, kid.

But Thomas, always with a healthy smile on his face, appears ready to tackle the challenges of life in the NHL, and the successes that came with the 2017-18 season had a lot to do with this preparation, along with getting the experience with the Blues last camp and in preseason.

"I think offensively, I became more offensive and worked on a couple of things in my game," Thomas said. "I think defensively I just became more sound. I think I'm more of a complete player now for sure.

"... I got my first taste for sure. You sort of see what it's all about, see how different it is from junior. So for me, I worked a lot throughout the year on my strength. I feel like I came a long way, and still got a ways to go."

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