London center Robert Thomas is the type of player who often goes unnoticed. But that doesn't mean he's invisible. Far from it.
Playing on a team overflowing with talent, one that won the Memorial Cup in 2016, the 17-year-old forward carved out a place for himself during his second season in the Ontario Hockey League. Known more as a defensive forward in his first OHL season, Thomas added a big offensive component this season with 66 points (16 goals, 50 assists) in 66 games, and he had 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 14 OHL playoff games.
"Robert is a good 200-foot player, he's intelligent," Matt Ryan of NHL Central Scouting said. "He's an excellent passer and has a good vision of the ice. He can create in traffic, doesn't panic and makes smart decisions with the puck. He's a natural playmaker."
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Thomas' breakout offensive season coupled with his attention to defensive details and plus-41 rating has him at No. 22 among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings for the 2017 NHL Draft presented by adidas.
The first round of the draft at United Center in Chicago is Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN); Rounds 2-7 are Saturday (10 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN).
Thomas often is compared to Vancouver Canucks center Bo Horvat, who preceded him in London, and scouts expect Thomas to fill a second- or third-line center role in the NHL.
"I really proved what I could do this season," Thomas (5-foot-11, 192 pounds) said. "I got on the radar of NHL teams. Plus/minus, to me, is an underrated statistic because it says a lot about a player. I'm very proud of it."
Thomas had a limited role with London as an OHL rookie in 2015-16. However, he had the opportunity to share a locker room with some players who made an impact in the NHL this season, most notably Mitchell Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames and Christian Dvorak of the Arizona Coyotes.
The Knights won the OHL championship and the Memorial Cup in 2016, and Thomas, at age 16, was a useful role player, a rarity at his age. He said London's playoff success was a major reason for his improvement this season.
"It helped me a lot to play in the Memorial Cup against the best players of each league," he said. "That experience had an impact on my game this year. Making a long run in the playoffs and having success is a big reason why I was able to perform the way I did this season.
"We had a lot of great players; look at how our top line performed in the NHL this season. Those guys had an influence on me."
Thomas continued his development last summer when he decided to live with Tkachuk and train with him under longtime NHL forward Gary Roberts, who trains a number of NHL players.
It's hard to say what role Roberts' training program played, but Tkachuk had 48 points (13 goals, 35 assists) in 76 games as a rookie with the Flames and Thomas had his best offensive season.
"It showed me what it took to have a good season in the NHL like [Tkachuk] did," Thomas said. "Watching him train and prepare, it opened my eyes to how I can make it. He had a big impact on my work ethic all season."