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Thomas being given great opportunity to shine in top-six role with Blues

Blues management and coaching staff are swinging the door wide open for Thomas, and the message is clear: take the opportunity and run with it

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. — It's no secret of the Blues' plans for Robert Thomas for this season, and beyond.

The 2017 first-round pick has been touted as a top six forward since he first donned the Blues jersey and continues to demand more ice time, more responsibilities and a bigger role as his career moves along.

Thomas has been used up and down the lineup, going through mostly ups and some downs, but the learning curve has been quite beneficial in his two short NHL seasons, which has already included a Stanley Cup.

With a benefit of riches at the forward position, Blues management and coaching staff are swinging the door wide open for Thomas, and the message is clear: take the opportunity and run with it.

As camp opened Monday for the 2020-21 season, Thomas was centering a line with Jaden Schwartz and Mike Hoffman. One is a workaholic with the penchant for scoring, and one is a goal-scoring threat any time the puck touches his stick.

Thomas, 21, has 136 NHL regular-season games under his belt, but he's being given the reigns of one of the scoring lines that will also be given big minutes, and be expected to make an impact.

"It's really exciting," Thomas said. "It's something I've worked the last two years for. I've tried my best to earn it and to feel that trust from the coaching staff is awesome and it kind of shows the hard work's paid off to get me this chance and now I've just got to run away with it."

Thomas, who has 75 points (19 goals, 56 assists) in two seasons, comes with all the right credentials, which began during his junior career with the London Knights and Hamilton Bulldogs.

Now, Thomas will be given the chance to shine. No auditions. No trials. Simply take the chance given and exhibit those talents.

"I thought about putting Thomas in the middle between Schwartz and Hoffman," Blues coach Craig Berube said.  "For me, you've got a shooter on there. Obviously you've got one of our hardest-working players, makes every line better in my opinion in 'Schwartzy'. Any line he goes on becomes a better line, just with his energy and everything else.

"We want to see if 'Tommer' is ready to (catapult) to that No. 2 hole and do a good job there."

Quite simply, the floor is Thomas', and was able to get in the proper work to continue his progression.

"I think the summer I worked a lot this summer on quickness, making that first step a little bit faster and obviously conditioning as well," Thomas said. "Hopefully I can keep playing well and earn a couple more minutes. Got to be ready for that.

"... I had a good chunk of time (in the offseason). That and before the bubble to kind of get back in shape. The last four years have been long playoff runs and quick turnarounds in the offseason. Big opportunity for me in the summer to have a full summer for me to fully train and to get ready for the year."

Thomas was already recognizing who is on his right wing. He knows there will be plenty of opportunities to set up Hoffman, who scored 29 goals for Florida last season.

"We all know he's a sniper, we all know he scores goals," Thomas said of Hoffman, who has 169 goals the past six seasons. "I've been really impressed actually. I didn't really realize how good of a shot it really was until I passed it to him. I think it was a couple days ago on a 2-on-1 and he put it right under the bar. We know he can shoot, we know he's got speed and skill. It'll be a lot of fun to play with."

Hoffman has been in the league for nine seasons and ha splayed with some skillful centermen. It didn't take long for him to get an appreciation for his new linemates.

"They're obviously both very good players," Hoffman said. "Thomas a little younger. He's very good with the puck and a very good passer and Schwartzy can do it all. He's a good two-way forward and can put the puck in the net and is good defensively as well. I think we could definitely contribute to each other and help each other out a lot."

Thomas' patience with the puck has always been evident, and his ability to make plays will be beneficial to both Hoffman and Schwartz. With nine and 10 goals, respectively, in each of his two seasons, he can stand to shoot the puck more instead of deferring. But that comes with time and opportunities. And the fact Thomas has added some lower-body bulk that has him at 188 pounds helps the physical cause that allows him to protects pucks better and improve on the dot.

"Definitely feel like I'm a lot stronger, a lot (more solid) down low and in the core," Thomas said. "I feel like that and I went up on some of the flex on my stick as well that should help also.

"I feel like it just comes with strength a little bit. Something I kind of worked on was being stronger when I'm down low ready for a faceoff. Timing's timing. You kind of get used to that. I think it's just about being stronger in the dot."

The days of living with the Tkachuk's are in the past, although Thomas said he's "going back twice a week right now." They're all signs of growing up.

Thomas' development and ascension could very well be a key factor in how far the Blues can go this season. Being part of a Cup run, then part of last season's disappointing, and surprising, end in the first round should serve as plenty of motivation for all involved, including Thomas.

"We are definitely very hungry and motivated," Thomas said. "Last year didn't go nearly the way we wanted it to. We want to prove to everyone that we're still a top team and we can compete for another Cup this year. You had a lot of guys coming in early and a lot of guys stayed throughout the summer as well. I think that kind of just shows how motivated we are and how ready we are to get back on top."

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