Why St. Louis Blues star center Robert Thomas got defensive

Why St. Louis Blues star center Robert Thomas got defensive

Inside the home of Robert Thomas is a replica Stanley Cup sitting on a desk. It’s a conversation piece, a reminder of career accomplishments and something his guests inevitably drink out of during house parties.

“I mean, it’s only like a good half sip,” Thomas said, laughing. “But it’ll do the job.”

Thomas lifted the actual Stanley Cup in 2019 with the St. Louis Blues. He was a rookie then. He’s an NHL All-Star now. He admits that the championship feels “forever ago” to him.

“I was pretty lucky my first year. So I was kind of going into every year thinking I’ll be in the Cup Final or winning it all. And now, a couple of years later, we haven’t gotten close,” he said. “I’m just itching to get another chance at it.”

He was a 19-year-old supporting player who skated 13:07 per game in the Blues’ Stanley Cup run. Now in his sixth season, Thomas is the leading scorer for St. Louis with 69 points in 62 games, playing 20:53 on average.

His general manager, Doug Armstrong, said there’s “no question” Thomas is a No. 1 center in the NHL. Armstrong followed through on that praise by giving Thomas an eight-year contract with an average annual value of $8.125 million in July 2022.

This is the first year of that $65 million contract. Armstrong has called it an investment in Thomas’ future; and like any investment, he wants to see it mature. Before the season, Armstrong said he wanted to see Thomas go from being an offensive standout to a complete NHL center.

“It’s the 200-foot game,” the GM said. “It’s a tough task. You’re going against [Auston] Matthews. You’re going against [Sidney] Crosby. You’re going against [Anze] Kopitar. His job is not only to play with those guys, but to outcompete them and outperform them. But the belief in Robert has never been higher that he’s ready for that challenge.”

Thomas accepted the challenge.

“I put a big emphasis on it this summer. Improving the 200-foot game. And I knew I was gonna be matched up against top lines all year long. If I didn’t work on that side of it, then we wouldn’t be doing too well,” he said. “I feel like I’ve taken a big step defensively, but obviously there’s always room to grow.”

The results have been impressive. Through 62 games, the Blues have a goals-against average of 1.93 at 5-on-5 when Thomas is on the ice, the best rate for any St. Louis player with at last 30 games played. He’s starting to get mentioned in Selke Trophy conversations.

“Since I’ve been here, he’s been an outstanding player for us. He sees some real tough minutes and he seems to be thriving on it,” Blues interim coach Drew Bannister said. “The offensive side comes easy to him. The defensive side, for any skilled hockey player, that’s the one thing that lags a little bit. But with Robbie, we’re starting to see him really mature into a good two-way hockey player here.”

Thomas’ commitment to defense started with self-reflection about who he is as an NHL player. He’s been a top scorer for the Blues over the past three seasons and is on track for the highest points-per-60 minutes average of his career (3.2). But he’s not Connor McDavid or Crosby or Nathan MacKinnon as a scorer. And he’s OK with that.

“I wouldn’t say I’m an offensive guy that’s one of the top [scorers] in the league. There are guys that can just make so many more plays and score and use their speed and different things than me,” Thomas said. “So you look at different ways to kind of get better. For me, it was defensively.”

To find that defensive game, he studied and learned from some accomplished two-way centers, taking parts of their games to build his own.

As a fan and an opponent, he admired former Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews, who was a Selke Trophy winner and a four-time finalist in his career. As a teammate, he learned plenty from Ryan O’Reilly, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with the Blues. As a student, he’s worked with Hockey Hall of Famer and skills coach to the stars Adam Oates, who has also helped players ranging from MacKinnon to Matthew Tkachuk.

“There’s a lot of information out there, especially from guys that have played or are currently playing and everyone’s so happy to share their knowledge,” Thomas said. “You just kind of soak in as much as you can and try and find different pieces that work. Things like stick positioning from one guy, or the way you should turn to find guys coming into the zone from another guy. All that stuff.”

Is he ever surprised how many trade secrets veteran players are willing to share?

“Not at all. That’s what hockey’s about. It’s always about helping guys out. Older guys help the younger guys and younger guys help each other,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been in the league a little bit longer, so guys are coming to me for advice. And I’m like, ‘I don’t have the answers.’ So it’s kind of funny.”

But ultimately, the decision to fine-tune his defense has everything to do with success on the ice. As Armstrong said, Thomas is competing against some of the most elite offensive centers in hockey on a nightly basis. He has been tasked with outplaying them. Thomas takes that role seriously, even when the challenge is daunting.

“We had McDavid a couple of days after he had six points against Detroit. And I was like, ‘Try and stop that?'” recalled Thomas, who watched McDavid post three assists against the Blues. “But those guys were big parts of [my motivation]. I definitely need to get a lot better in order to compete with those guys.”

Thomas would love to compete against them in the postseason, but those hopes are fading. Entering Wednesday night, the Blues trailed for the final wild-card slot by six points and had just a 5% chance of making the playoffs, per Stathletes. The Blues have won a single playoff round since winning the Cup and missed the playoffs last season.

“Last year, we weren’t in the hunt at all, and it sucked. So I’m really happy this year just being in these pressure situations,” Thomas said. “There’s definitely emotional swings. That’s why we play the game. We love pressure, we love to compete.”

Few are competing harder, in both ends of the rink, than Robert Thomas this season.

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