Blues prospect Robert Thomas might only get one shot at WJC team

Rob Thomas. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

ST. CATHARINES, Ont. – Robert Thomas put his head to good use during Team Canada’s exhibition game against U Sports on Thursday.

Thomas temporarily tied the score at 13:09 of the third period after the rebound of a shot from defenceman Conor Timmins ricocheted off his noggin and into the net.

“That was definitely the first one,” he said, smiling, after the 4-3 loss. “Anytime you get a goal like that you get a good laugh at it.

“That’s just getting rewarded for going to the dirty areas.”

Using his head to literally score a goal was the obvious example.

But it also put the finishing touches on a night where the St. Louis Blues prospect had another one of his banner performances backed by brainpower.

In the first period alone, Thomas protected the puck on a rush while fending off a defenceman, allowing him to pull it to his forehand for a shot. Later, he drove to the net after making a drop pass to hinder his opponent and buy space for linemate Maxime Comtois.

Neither play resulted in a goal for the Canadians, a bit of bad fortune considering Thomas’ skill has helped him reach fourth in OHL scoring with 46 points.

Still, the six-foot-one, 194-pound right-handed centre made things happen and was strong in the faceoff circle and aware in the defensive zone. His goal was scored on the power play.

“I’m very impressed with the details of his game,” Blues director of player development Tim Taylor said during the first intermission. “That’s his biggest asset. He’s such a smart player. He reads the game so well. He’s a guy, in the future for us, who will be a player that we rely on in any situation.”

When asked about Thomas, Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme didn’t want to comment on individual performances before the final world junior roster was named.

Thomas is one of only six 1999-born players competing for jobs. The Aurora, Ont., native’s spot is probably the most secure of that group.

The first wave of Canada’s scoring is projected to come from the likes of Regina Pats’ Sam Steel and Jordan Kyrou of the Sarnia Sting, another Blues prospect.

Having Thomas slot behind them as a capable offensive and defensive option could prove to be a nice luxury. It’s one Thomas, who patterns his game after Boston Bruin Patrice Bergeron and former Knight Bo Horvat, is confident he can fill.

“Hopefully I can help out behind them and help the team be successful,” he said.

Thomas worked with fitness guru and former NHLer Gary Roberts in the off-season. He said he also worked diligently on bettering his shot – specifically a quicker and more deceptive release – and his defensive play. The results have followed.

“I knew that if I worked on some parts of my game, I could have a lot of success,” Thomas said. “It’s good to know the hard work is paying off from the summer. For myself, I’d say I’m meeting my expectations.”

Taylor believes he’s probably selling himself short.

This is beyond where the Blues envisioned him being after selecting him 20th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“You look at players who went before him and after him, we’re really, really happy we were able to pick him up where we did,” Taylor said. “I think any team right now would love to have a player like that.”

Taylor calls Thomas a future top-six forward for the Blues, one who can make his teammates better with his intelligence and versatility.

Thomas would be eligible to play in next year’s tournament, too. But given his smarts, marking his name down in permanent ink rather than pencil may be under-thinking it.

“He needs to get a little bit stronger and a little bit heavier on his feet, but he has a real good chance of making our team next year,” Taylor said.

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