REGINA – As St. Louis Blues director of player development, Tim Taylor has a vested interest in paying close attention whenever Robert Thomas is on the ice at the Mastercard Memorial Cup.
And Taylor has noticed Thomas – the Blues’ 20th overall pick last June – in the tournament almost the second he jumps over the boards for the Hamilton Bulldogs.
"He reminds me of Patrice Bergeron. He does everything on the ice," Taylor said. "He’s always in the right place at the right time.
"He’s a very, very dangerous player when he’s on the ice."
With Thomas leading the way, the Bulldogs finished the Memorial Cup round robin at 2-1 and are a win away from the final. They play the host Regina Pats in Friday’s semifinal.
While his offensive numbers aren’t up to his usual standards, Thomas is still tied for the team lead with two goals and three points.
The first-line centreman plays on the first power play and penalty kill. And although ice time totals aren’t available, Pats coach-GM John Paddock said Thomas played 27 minutes in the Bulldogs’ round-robin finale. Paddock’s probably not far off.
"It’s definitely tough," Thomas said of all the work. "But at this time of year, you’ve got the adrenaline going."
That Thomas has been able to push through, and do so capably, has been essential to the Bulldogs’ success.
"Everything about him – he’s just a calming influence on our hockey team," coach John Gruden said.
"He’s been Robert Thomas. We wouldn’t be in this position without him. He wants the puck on his stick at all times and he’s only getting better."
The puck seems to be magnetized to Thomas’s stick. If he doesn’t have the disc, he’s likely around it or will be getting it soon.
Thomas has a team-high 15 shots on goal through three games, but he’s known more for his passing abilities and Gruden would like to see him use that "great shot" even more.
While two goals through three games is nothing to be disappointed about, Thomas certainly has had his chances to add to those totals.
He was robbed three times late in Monday’s game against Swift Current by Stuart Skinner, including twice by the goalie’s catching hand.
"When a goalie is playing as good as he did that game, you’ve just got to laugh and not take it too seriously," he said. "You’ve just gotta laugh it off and keep going stronger."
Thomas appeared visibly perturbed that he couldn’t score, first pressing his stick behind his neck and against his shoulder and then looking to the rafters after another miss.
To Taylor and Gruden, it was a sign he’s not unflappable – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
"It’s about winning. That’s embedded in him," Taylor said. "He wants to win so bad."
"Sometimes it looks like he can get frustrated. But I’d rather have it that way than him not want it and come off the ice," Gruden said. "He’s going to be there for us. He thrives on moments like this."
While offence is an important part of Thomas’s game, allowing the Bulldogs to thrive against the Pats on Friday will probably have to involve him shutting down Sam Steel’s line.
The Pats captain leads the tournament with 10 assists and 11 points, while left-winger Nick Henry has the most goals at five.
Thomas drew that assignment in the teams’ tournament-opening matchup and expects to be lined up opposite of his Canadian world junior teammate again.
The Pats, however, have last change by virtue of the 3-2 win last Friday. Thomas scored once and wasn’t on the ice when Steel assisted on Henry’s winner with 32.6 seconds remaining.
Keeping tabs on Steel when they’re on the ice together is his No. 1 priority.
"We have the depth to score anywhere. Just shutting him down would be the key for sure," Thomas said.
If recent history is any indication, Thomas may just be able to produce at both ends of the ice.
Thomas was named OHL playoff MVP for making life difficult on opponents’ best players and still recording 32 points in 21 games as the Bulldogs won the championship.
It was the biggest acquisition made this season by Bulldogs GM Steve Staios, who brought in Thomas from the London Knights at the OHL trade deadline in January.
"I don’t know if we’d be sitting here today if Steve didn’t make that trade," Bulldogs over-age captain Justin Lemcke said. "On the ice is one thing. But off the ice his calmness and poise are contagious in our dressing room.
"He’s such a good leader. He’s not very vocal, but he plays the right way. He works hard. Every other top-end guys we played in other series, he outworked. He was shutting down first lines while still being able to put up ridiculous numbers throughout the playoffs. He’s so versatile and, I think, the best player in the OHL."
At only 18 – he turns 19 in July – Thomas must play in the OHL next season if he doesn’t make the NHL.
Lemcke is confident Thomas will make the leap – "I don’t think he’ll be back," he said, matter-of-factly – and Gruden and Taylor believe he’s on the right track.
Adding bulk to his six-foot-one, 194-pound frame and perhaps learning to make plays quicker are areas for Thomas to address over the summer, Taylor said.
Adding to a resume that includes a 2016 Memorial Cup title – as a 16-year-old in London – and 2018 world junior gold medal is the focus now, though.
And considering how he’s playing, Thomas may just be able to do that with the Bulldogs.
"When he’s on the ice, their team seems to be very calm. They don’t seem to panic at all," Taylor said. "They’re a totally different team when he’s on the ice."