ST. LOUIS — When Robert Thomas retrieved a missed pass from teammate Tyler Bozak, curled to the circle and whipped a shot past Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark, it signified the growth of a first-round pick.
And then he was perched behind the Sabres net Thursday in Wayne Gretzky-like fashion before pinpointing a pass between five skaters for Bozak to deposit into the net for a 2-0 lead, en route to a 5-1 win.
Last season, and even earlier this season, the 20-year-old Thomas probably tries a different play, or when he gets the puck before scoring the first goal, he defers to someone else, or as Craig Berube has said in the past, Thomas would give the puck up too easily.
The growth of the 2017 first-round pick (20th overall) is developing before our very eyes, the kind of trigger man that the Blues have been searching for since they selected Rod Brind'Amour with the ninth pick in the 1988 draft.
The Blues haven't picked too many prolific center icemen in their history, among them that turned into solid NHL players included Brind'Amour (452 goals, 732 assists in 1,484 games), Cliff Ronning (306 goals, 563 assists in 771 games for the third-round pick in 1985), Doug Gilmour (450 goals, 964 assists in 1,474 games for the 1982 seventh-round pick), Bernie Federko (369 goals, 761 assists in 1,000 games for the 1976 first-round pick) and Wayne Merrick (191 goals, 265 assists in 774 games for the first-round pick in 1972.
Thomas' ceiling is just beginning, but from what is unfolding before our very eyes speaks of the potential the Aurora, Ontario native has.
"Confidence for one thing is for sure," Blues coach Craig Berube said of Thomas. "Earlier on this year, I thought he was trying to, for me, he had no composure with the puck. I thought he was throwing it away too easily and too quickly. And now, I find that he's hanging onto it more. His ability to be elusive and get away from checks and things like that, it opens things up. It's how we want to play too. We want to hang onto the puck. We don't want to make all these quick plays and all that. That's not us. He's really bought into that and is doing a good job, and now he's hanging onto the puck more and things are opening up for him. I thought that earlier on this year, he was almost too quick at trying to make plays that weren't there or the guy wasn't ready or just a missed pass. But now I find that he's got the puck all the time and that's good."
Thomas, who has six points his past five games (three goals, three assists) and 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists) in 40 games this season, has been utilized more at his natural center position as opposed to the right wing he played throughout his rookie season and early part of this season.
Thomas and Bozak switch up on face-offs being on the same line, but it's Thomas who creates things for Bozak and Alexander Steen off the rush and in the zone when the Blues are possessing the puck.
"I think when you can help him create a little more space, he's able to hang onto the puck like that I think like the last three games or so, he's been incredible, so it's very easy to play with," Steen said.
With confidence comes experience, and with experience comes growth, and Thomas seems to be gravitating towards both.
"I feel like every day I just try to build a little bit, build a little bit more and that’s been my mindset from Day 1 up here, keep on building, keep on building, and having those two on my line helps with that," Thomas said. "They keep talking to me and making sure I’m feeling good, making the right plays, and they get me the puck. It’s great playing with them. They to this point, obviously up to this point, have had such great careers so it’s awesome for me to play with them."
Thomas is the guy on the ice now that feels confident in threading a needle pass into spaces where most players wouldn't even try, he's fighting off would-be checkers that seemed to knock him off pucks easier when he was a rookie, and Thomas is helping complementary players produce to give the Blues the kind of balance needed throughout a lineup.
"I think he’s improving, he’s a kid who will keep getting better and you know, it’s fun to be a part of, fun to watch," Bozak said. "I’ve been lucky in my career to play with a lot of young really good players and see them grow and he’s on the same path as a lot of those guys, so it’s fun to be part of that."
The Blues have brought Thomas along at a good pace, and didn't bring him into the NHL too quickly, allowing him to develop at a good pace. At 6-foot-0, 188 pounds, his body continues to grow into a man's body that will only help his 53.9 percent career Corsi and 53.1 percent career Fenwick possession numbers grow.
"In the NHL, you've got to learn how to play 200 feet and it takes time," Berube said. "You've got to learn things, manage pucks and do all the right things. There's a lot of stuff that goes into it. He's a smart kid and he learns and wants to learn and he's done a good job.
"He's got speed with the puck. He might be the fastest player on our team with the puck. He backs people off with his speed with the puck and creates open ice."
Which is exactly what Thomas wants, and he wants to continue playing with hard-working veterans like he is today. Imagine when Thomas moves up the ranks and becomes that top-flight center.
"We’re definitely feeling good," Thomas said. "We’re playing the right way and that’s what’s getting us our success, so I think just sticking with that and keep on building off it."
Come to think if it, there's a reason why the Sabres were pining for Thomas in the July 1, 2018 trade that sent Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis. The Blues quickly doused that notion and included Tage Thompson instead.