To Train Up a Thomas…

(Photo Credit: Scott Kane / Associated Press)

King Solomon said in Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it”. That King Solomon was a wise guy, and though some believe that Robert Thomas is being mishandled, I believe Coach Yeo is implementing the same wisdom as Solomon by periodically scratching the youngster. I know that’s not a very popular opinion, but let’s break down the facts.

THE ROOKIE

Thomas, 19, is a top center prospect for the entire NHL. The Aurora, ON, CAN teenager is 6’0, 187lbs, and a coveted right-hand shot. Drafted at #20 overall in the 2017 draft by the Blues, he played for the OHL for the London Knights and the Hamilton Bulldogs. He played a total of 115 games, tallied 40 goals, 101 assists, for a total of 141 points. He was named as an alternate captain on both teams. He won gold for Team Canada in 2017-2018, playing in 7 games, and tallying 1 goal, 6 assists, for seven points. He was an OHL champion and took home the Wayne Gretzky MVP trophy for the OHL Playoffs.

Thomas was so highly coveted by every team in the NHL that every team involved in trade talks with the Blues was asking for him, and every team wanted him. That was why it was so hard for the deal for Ryan O’Reilly to go through: Buffalo wanted him or Jordan Kyrou, until they eventually settled on Tage Thompson.

THE DRAWBACK

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: before the NHL, Thomas has only seen juniors or below. His NHL experience is limited. Per the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA, also known as the “Jason Spezza Rule”) signed between the NHL, NHLPA and all of the Canadian junior leagues after the 1994-1995 lockout, and all of its reiterations up until 1/2013, junior-eligible players can be granted “Exceptional Player Status” at 19 years of age or below, and are allowed a temporary tryout period of nine NHL games with an NHL club. If their respective teams do not feel the player is fit for the NHL, based off of performance and adaptability, those players are returned to their junior teams; only players 20 and above may be relocated to an AHL affiliate team. This is a major hurdle for Thomas, who has proven all he can at the junior level and is still adjusting to the NHL level.

THE METHOD TO THE MADNESS

Thomas earned his spot on the roster, but many complain that he is being mishandled because he sees only fourth-line minutes, or is scratched for other players to play. I have a problem with the philosophy that Yeo is intentionally keeping him out and it hurts Thomas’s development. Here are the top three points, and my responses:

1. THOMAS ISN’T GETTING A CHANCE TO PLAY AS MUCH AS JORDAN KYROU, OR WITH AS GOOD OF PLAYERS. True. However, Thomas is a centerman, Kyrou is a winger. There is a big difference between those two jobs because of the nature of their positions.

The difference is what I like to call “fixed”, “fluid” or “semi-fluid” positions. In my mind, a “fluid” position is purely a winger – they can slot on every line, they may have a certain role, they generally “do their thing” and the team benefits from them being creative. You are not going to see them take as many faceoffs as centermen. You’re not going to see many of them quarterbacking a play. You will see them be physical, create havoc in front of the net, puck hound, take slapshots, take off on a breakaway, and make things happen. Everything they do is either reactionary to where the puck is, or where it needs to be. They are not going to draw up some crazy schematic in their heads of how to get the puck to which player, or think twenty steps ahead.

“Fixed” positions are your traditional centers, goalies and defensemen, who must think at a higher, faster, and more complicated level, because they’re the ones who make the plays, and must fit into specific roles carved out for them.

The real joy is the happy medium players, or the “semi-fluids”: those that exceed their positions’ expectations and incorporate a bit of another position to add to their arsenal. They can be centers as wingers, and defensemen who act like “fourth forwards”. This is why Brayden Schenn is so effective as a centerman, and as a player as a whole. Though center is his natural position, he has years of experience as a winger. So, not only can he make plays with his teammates, but he can take off with the puck on breakaways, check players to cough the puck up, even hang out in front of the net, in order for others to put the puck in the net. He can think quickly and map things out, or he can go on pure reaction. It takes years of practice and experience to transition from a “fixed” centerman to a “semi-fluid” centerman.

Kyrou is a “fluid” and Thomas is a “fixed” (at this point). Kyrou is easier to slot into whatever line he’s put on, to show what he can do. Thomas has the harder job, the most detailed to learn (apart from goalie), and at this point, nowhere to go with it because of the forward depth above him. There’s no room. Yes, you can move him to wing and slot him in with Jaden Schwartz and Schenn, but the Blues know he is the centerman of the future. They want to groom him into that role, and proper training, now, is needed, to get him up to speed to where he needs to be. He’s not in a position to learn how to be a winger just yet… they need to get him ready to be an NHL centerman first. Yes, Yeo can give him more time on the fourth line by giving more minutes to that line. But… see below.

Also… before it’s mentioned, Barbashev, Blais and Sanford are exempt as rookie forwards, due to their experience. All of them played in the NHL prior, or have professional experience in the AHL. They are steps ahead of Thomas in being comfortable in the NHL. Also, you have to slot them in somehow. One of them, be it Thomas, Barbashev, Sanford or Blais, will be scratched.

2. THOMAS IS NOT GETTING ENOUGH MINUTES. Also true. His average ice time is 8:51 to Kyrou’s 11:41. Kyrou is given the bulk of the minutes, and he has played with everyone: O’Reilly, Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko… the list goes on. However, Yeo can only give so much time to the fourth line in “must win” situations.

Due to the bad start of the season, and the team lacking the chemistry needed to band together as a team, where would you give Thomas minutes? On the powerplay against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who scored the most goals out of the gate and have a decent penalty kill? Penalty kill against the Ducks, who clearly have shown that they mean business with their successful start? Even against Chicago, who were not supposed to be top dogs, trounced us twice… in overtime.

Situationally, you set Thomas up to fail at this point by placing him in situations where he has to “man up” with experience that he does not have quite yet, in key matchups where the Blues need the win… and fast. If the Blues were not in as tight of a situation as they are to start the year, perhaps that would have changed Thomas’s ice time drastically. Perhaps they would have given him more ice time. But right now, there’s no room for error, and little time to train until you get out of the jam.

It’s a battleground, not a training ground, right now. The Blues don’t have the time to put the kid gloves on for a rookie centerman that has an abundant upside, and we all (including myself) believe in him, but he needs to grow his confidence level more. He can do that whether he’s on the ice or scratched.  And here’s a thought: if Thomas cannot do anything with the limited minutes he gets a night now, then increasing his minutes will not do any good either. As an NHL’er, you take what you can get. You use what you have to your advantage. You do the best with what you are given, period. You have to prove that you can handle what you’re given, and then, you may get a few more minutes to handle.

3. THOMAS ISN’T DOING ANYTHING, AND HE WOULD BE BETTER GOING BACK TO JUNIORS AND PLAYING MORE GAMES. Completely incorrect. Though he is not getting many games under his belt, he is learning a LOT about the NHL from his teammates. Half the battle is knowing what you’re facing and doing your homework. He may not play, but he’s at every practice. He’s going over video of the opposing teams and looking for their weaknesses or looking at his own video to see where he is making mistakes.

He’s out for team meals. He’s hanging out with these guys. He’s learning more and more about his position from three reliable, incredibly gifted, highly intelligent centermen who have all been in this league since 2009. Almost 10 years’ of ups and downs, shots and misses, wins and screwups, leadership and responsibility… that’s what O’Reilly, Schenn, and Bozak are imparting into Thomas every day. EVERY. DAY.

He’s learning about what it takes to be at the NHL level. (Sidenote: do you really think the Blues are going to pass up the opportunity to have Thomas learn how to take faceoffs like Ryan O’Reilly?).

Thomas CANNOT learn about what it takes to be in the NHL from the OHL. He CANNOT learn how to be a more effective centerman in the NHL from the OHL. The OHL and the NHL are two totally different levels, two totally different animals. It was said over and over again: there is nothing more for Thomas to learn from the OHL. He needs a new teacher.

You can play a video game on easy mode only so many times before you start looking for something harder to challenge you. That’s how everyone grows and develops – by facing new and harder challenges, and not taking it easy. If Thomas was eligible for AHL, I could concede the argument that you should send him down, but not with the OHL.

Also… every game he DOESN’T play gives Thomas more time to practice, train, start getting more comfortable in the league and in what he can do, without burning through all 9 of his tryout games. At this point, he still doesn’t know who his linemates are each night, and he’s still not as confident in himself. By scratching him, he’s given more time to develop that in practice, and on the road with the guys, and (eventually) in games as well. That’s like having an OHL cheat code for the NHL.

CONCLUSION

Guys… chill out. Relax. Thomas will be fine. He will develop at the right pace, at the right time, and Yeo knows a lot more than we do. He’s not mishandling his next star player: he’s letting Thomas develop at a speed that will be beneficial to Thomas in the long run. Sometimes, you’ve got to let the rookies bake a bit more slowly than what you expected initially, but in the end, the result’s still tasty.

…And now I want to eat cake. So… until next time!

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