Wed. Sep 23rd, 2020

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This year’s draft is unlike many drafts of previous years in that there are so many varying opinions on the majority of the 1st round. I’ve seen some guys projected in the Top 5 by one forecaster and in the late 20’s by another. By most accounts it is a down year in terms of overall talent (C position looks strong) and even the potential 1st overall pick Nolan Patrick has many questions surrounding him.

Enter Robert Thomas.

London Knights’ Robert Thomas. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

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Thomas might just be the safest pick in this draft behind Nico Hischier. He has all the tools NHL teams look for – elite speed, high hockey IQ, excellent hands, versatility (can play C or W), good faceoff guy and a solid 2 way player. Having watched many London games in person and almost all on TV, I can assure you that you won’t find a more consistent, hard working player night in and night out than him. In fact, it can be argued the reason why he ISN’T in the Top 5 conversation is because he was asked to do so much this year. He played on the 2nd PP unit & was their top penalty killer for the majority of the season along with also being Coach Hunter’s shutdown center. This may have led to the questions about his lack of offensive production (he did have 66 points in 66 games mainly playing on the 3rd line). His tremendous talent was obvious right from the beginning of the season, he was just stuck behind veteran forwards like Captain J.J. Piccinich and asked to play more of a 2 way role which Coach Hunter prefers.

Once the Knights traded for C Mitchell Stephens (Tampa’s 2nd rd pick) in January, it appeared that Thomas was destined to continue his role as #3C behind he & Cliff Pu (Buffalo 3rd rd pick). The Knights rolled into the playoffs against a tough Windsor team who boasted NHL Prospects like Logan Brown (OTT 1st rd pick), M.Sergachev (Mtl 1st rd), J.Bracco (Tor 2nd rd), J. Nattinen (ANH 2nd rd), Graham Knott (CHI 2nd rd), Sean Day (NYR 3rd rd), J.Addison (MTL 7th rd) and future Top 10 pick Gabe Vilardi & top goalie Michael DiPietro. It was a tough start to the series as the Knights got down 2 games to 1 then they lost Game 4 in OT. It was then that Hunter decided to make adjustments and reward the hardest working player on the team (#27) with a promotion to the Top line with #67 Stephens and #72 Kuokkonen (Carolina 2nd rd pick) cutely named the ‘7’s line’. Thomas became a top line player and immediately the team took off.

Thomas scored the first goal of Game 5 off a juicy rebound early in the 1st frame. Windsor tied it in the 2nd only for London to retake the lead minutes later with Thomas in front. The 3rd was all Windsor as they pushed hard to tie it but couldn’t solve CGY Prospect Tyler Parsons. Thomas finished the game 12 for 15 in FO’s, had several blocked shots was a +2 and led a PK that went 6 for 6 on the night. Tremendous performance for #27 outperformed only by his goalie Parsons.

Highlights can be seen here:

http://ontariohockeyleague.com/article/friday-highlights-fronts-climb-ahead-with-third-straight-win

Game 6 was back in Windsor a place London struggled to win in all year. Windsor scored first and led after one period despite several good chances by London. DiPietro seemed to be on his game that night. However, London got a PP early in the 2nd and it was the 7’s line of Kuokkanen, Thomas and Stephens eventually banking in a rebound after a beautiful cross ice pass from Thomas to tie the game 1-1. Kuokkanen then scored again shortly after and it was 2-1 Knights going into 3rd.

Piccinich would score for London early in the 3rd and Thomas would get the eventual game winner on a beautiful give and go with Stephens to make it 4-1. Windsor would fight back getting 2 goals by Addison but once again Thomas would ice the game with an ENG after diving to make a couple of huge blocks with the Spitfires swarming late. 2G, 1A, +2, 6 shots not bad.

For highlights of the game here is the link:

http://ontariohockeyleague.com/video/apr-217-gm6-ldn-5-wsr-3

Game 7 was back in London the place was buzzing I was once again in attendance. London took the lead early in the 2nd with an unbelievable cross ice pass by Thomas to Kuokkanen. The game was back and forth with London eventually taking a 3-2 lead and eliminating the (ironically, eventual Memorial Cup Champs) after being down 3 games to 1. Thomas finished the game 17 for 27 in the faceoff dot. He literally took every big faceoff the Knights needed. Once again he was out there late sacrificing his body on the ice trying to block shots and preserve the win. He was fantastic.

For highlights of the game here is the link:

http://ontariohockeyleague.com/article/tuesday-highlights-finns-provide-finish-as-fronts-knights-win-game-7

That whole series changed in my opinion when Thomas got promoted to the Top line. His impact was immediate, his offensive skills became front and center as he was London’s best overall player the last 3 games with 3 G, 2A +3 with 10 shots and was a key contributor in holding Windsor’s dynamic PP to only 1 for 13 those last 3 games. He just seemed to flourish playing with more talented players and you could see what a fabulous player he was in his own right in a more offensive role. If you have time to watch the links I posted you can see his tremendous vision and passing along with his terrific skating and wonderful hands. All skills that should translate well to the NHL.

But that’s not all. The next series against Erie he was just as effective. Game 6 was absolutely unbelievable and is a must watch as far as highlights go. All of his skills are showcased beautifully in 1 playoff game against the eventual OHL Champions Erie. There is textbook backchecking, passing, stickhandling, vision and playmaking along with his tremendous speed and acceleration all rolled into one game. Check out #27 here:

This kid is just scratching the surface in my opinion. He has a very underrated shot with a sneaky quick release. While he is not the biggest kid in terms of size he is ‘hard on the puck’ and can be a tenacious forechecker. Next year he will be the undisputed #1C from Day 1 and should dominate the OHL. He is the ultimate sleeper as his offensive production should skyrocket in Draft year +1. Smart, fast, highly skilled playmaker who never takes a night off and can play in all situations – a coach’s dream.

Edmonton is need of a RHC for depth in organization but also as an eventual replacement for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Thomas undoubtedly will be gone by #17 with Toronto on the board & former Knight GM Mark Hunter making the pick. I suspect he could go Top 10 since there was a lot of hype surrounding him during the OHL playoffs. However, if he drops to the NYI at #15 I’d be getting on the horn and looking to move up to snatch him. The price at that point should be somewhat reasonable. I don’t anticipate the Oilers will do this unless they feel the same way I do about the player but regardless of where he goes he is still my favourite prospect from this year’s draft. Boy, what a player.

If you’d like to comment please feel free to do so via twitter @TheOilKnight.