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Montreal Canadiens trade target: St. Louis Blues prospect Robert Thomas could become a core player

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Thomas is a dominant centre who would instantly become Montreal's best prospect, and could help the team for years to come.

Denmark v Canada - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerde/Getty Images

Since the announcement on Hockey Night In Canada that Max Pacioretty was actively being shopped, Elliotte Friedman has pointed to a few teams that might have interest in the prolific goal-scorer, including the St. Louis Blues.

There's a lot to like about them as a trade partner. The organization possesses a number of interesting surefire NHLers in their prospect pool, contrary to some other contending organizations around the league. Parting with one of them could be more acceptable for the Blues.

An article on sister site St. Louis Game Time looked at a potential trade between the Montreal Canadiens and the Western team. The proposal involved “either Carl Gunnarsson and a prospect (most likely Jordan Kyrou) or Joel Edmundson and Vladimir Sobotka plus maybe a draft pick.”

While there are interesting pieces there, especially Kyrou and Edmundson, and the value is not as as low as what we've come to expect from trade proposals elsewhere, this is not what Montreal should be interested in.

In the optic of a rebuild — or reset — Pacioretty becomes a trade asset you can't miss with. The perennial 30-goal-scorer has to fetch a return that will both add to the prospect cupboard and fills the needs of the team.

Kyrou is an incredible skater with a ton of offensive potential, but he likely projects as a winger at the next level, which is not what the Habs would ideally aim for. However, there's one other prospect in the Blues’ system who looks like a natural centre, and that’s a player who was last seen winning gold with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship: Robert Thomas.

Thomas is a flashy playmaker playing in a league that he has all but outgrown.

He went 20th overall in last year's draft — just a few picks before Montreal had their chance at him — but a lot of people had him higher on their list, even all the way into the top 10.

This season he's proving that he would have been a great selection for most teams ahead of the Blues, with a 1.69 points-per-game average, good for third in the OHL and a massive improvement over his previous season.

Robert Thomas is player #27 in the clips.

Offensive game

His stickhandling ability allows him to pull off some impressive passes in the narrower spaces of the ice. Not a physical presence at 6’0”, he compensates by being very agile on his skates.

He's a good puck protector who anticipates defenders’ movements, and easily places the puck in areas where they won't be able to reach it. He looks for and uses the smallest of openings to make his plays.

Creative and capable of bursts of speed, he's a dominant puck-rusher. When he's on the ice, the power play relies on him to both cross the offensive blue line with possession and in-zone orchestration of the play.

He constantly leaves defenders guessing what he's going to do next. His usage of deception (e.g. head fakes and weight shifts) opens passing lanes and makes life easy for his teammates. As long as they are in position to score, the centre finds ways to feed them the puck by manipulating the opponent's defence.

The most likely cause of his draft stock falling last year is his shot, which lags behind the rest of his tools. That didn't project him as a scorer at the next level, and the fact that he only recorded 16 goals in 66 games in his draft season on a very strong team didn't help this assumption.

This year, however, he has improved his release. He scored 20 goals in fewer than half the games he played last season while playing for a less-talented London Knights team.

Even if his shot remains one of the weaker elements of his arsenal, the fact that he's usually one step ahead of most on the ice still has him build an ever-growing highlight reel of goals.

In the same way that he moves defenders' sticks out of the way for his passes, Thomas is able to force them to go down expecting a shot that doesn't come. He then uses the space he created to move for a better view of the net.

Defensive game

Montreal has learned the hard way that a centre in junior isn't always able to become one at the NHL level. While this remains true for a lot of prospects, there are a few who look like solid fits down the middle from the get-go.

Thomas is one of them. He has some excellent defensive reads and constantly positions himself well in his zone. He is one of the rare players who actually stop on defence instead of trying to keep momentum in anticipation of offensive rushes.

He also has the trust of his coaches no matter where he plays.

At the World Juniors, he was slotted down the middle, not moved to the wing like some other young centres, and was on the ice for the last minute of the Gold Medal Game protecting a one-goal lead.

But the most telling sign that he's comfortable with the defensive side of the game is that, up until his recent trade to the Hamilton Bulldogs, he was playing defence on the penalty kill for the London Knights — by that I mean acting as an actual defenceman. He didn't look out of place, even breaking up rushes when he had the chance.

What would a trade for Robert Thomas look like?

Everyone is going to have a different theory on the subject.

Mine is that a year and a half of Pacioretty, even as the prolific goal-scorer that he is, isn't worth as much as most people think. Especially when compared to a centre that will likely prove to be one of the best coming out of the 2017 draft, and someone the Habs could have for 10 years or more.

That doesn't mean that Montreal should sell low. A few high picks would likely need to go their way in a move like this. But realistic expectations are in order for the return value.

This is why I think the best way to approach a trade that would shape the franchise for years to come is to aim for young players and accept the risks that come with their development.

If the scouting department strikes gold by selecting someone like Robert Thomas, the Habs could get exceptional value out of one of their top assets. And it would finally put the organization on the track they should have been on years ago.