When the Buffalo Sabres acquired Tage Thompson as part of a deal that sent Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues this offseason, fans of both teams had some very mixed views on where he stood as a prospect. While some Sabres supporters lamented the fact that the team failed to pry away a top-tier prospect like Jordan Kryou or Robert Thomas, others were high on the former first-round draft pick.
This past weekend, the blue-and-gold faithful saw Thompson in action for the first time and his performance in the annual Prospects Challenge in downtown Buffalo left spectators wanting more. While he certainly acquitted himself well against other prospects, did he do enough to convince the organization that is he ready for a full-time role with the big club next season?
The answer remains to be seen, but the hulking forward certainly brings a certain skill set to the table that the Sabres have been lacking.
Thompson’s Time With the Blues
Despite being seen as a second-tier organizational prospect during his time in St.Louis, Thompson spent half of last season with the Blues, posting nine points in 41 games. Those numbers don’t exactly jump off the score sheet but at 20 years old, that experience will only contribute to his continued development.
As a victim of circumstance, the rise of prospects like Kryou, Thomas and Klim Kostin factored into Thompson’s expendability in the Blues organization. Given his pedigree as the 26th overall selection in 2016, fans in St. Louis became somewhat disappointed as he failed to generate points last season, though the fact that he never skated with consistent linemates must be taken into account.
At the end of the day, the Blues simply had too much forward depth to give him a legitimate chance at a top-six role moving forward. Not a bad problem to have, but certainly not beneficial to a prospect like Thompson.
Strong Prospects Challenge
Let’s preface this by acknowledging that the Prospects Challenge is not a great indicator of NHL success. Most of the players participating will never become regulars in the big league. That being said, Thompson’s performance this past weekend showed that he is several steps ahead in his development compared to the rest of the field.
Not only was his offensive acumen on full display, his physical development and superior speed given his 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame is what helped him stand out the most. From a transitional standpoint, his massive wingspan allowed him to break-up plays and secure possession at center ice, which in turn led to additional scoring opportunities on offense.
— Matthew Bové (@Matt_Bove) September 8, 2018
Participating in the Sabres’ first two games of the three-game set, Thompson was consistently considered one of the top players on the Buffalo roster by both fans and media members. He’ll need to carry that level of play into training camp if he plans on making the opening night roster, but his first impression in Western New York left spectators with a sense of optimism about his long-term potential.
As a team in the midst of a cultural shakeup that stemmed from widespread criticism of team effort, his high-energy, physical style of play should appeal to Jason Botterill’s cultural vision moving forward. On top of that, he spoke highly of Thompson’s versatility, citing it as a main factor in his decision to target him as part of the O’Reilly trade.
“He comes into the league as a first-round pick, been in St. Louis his entire career, played in a lot of different roles – power play, penalty killing, wing, center,” Botterill said. “I think that versatility is something that we were really intrigued by.”
Though the second-year general manager has garnered a reputation for being patient with prospect development, he may view another year in the AHL as unnecessary for Thompson given his physical prowess and apparent talent level.
Sabres Need Shooters
It’s no secret that the Sabres have failed to produce offensively over the past two seasons. Part of the problem has been a failure to generate shots on net. Last year, the team fell to 21st in the league in shots with first-year head coach Phil Housley at the helm after ranking 15th under the notoriously milquetoast Dan Bylsma in 2016-17.
Coming over from a Nashville squad that ranked sixth in that department during his final year as an assistant coach with the team, fans expected an improvement in Housley’s offensive system. Part of the problem had to do with personnel, but given the roster overhaul that has taken place in Buffalo, that excuse won’t cut it next season.
Thompson brings a shooter’s mentality to the organization, something that they’ve lacked in recent years. Compounding on that problem is the fact that the Sabres have ranked toward the bottom of the league in shots allowed. Thompson’s relative Corsi of 2.16 will be a welcome addition in that regard. Despite a pedestrian shot success rate of 5.5-percent, his ability to generate chances on offense will prove incredibly useful.
One of the organization’s main focuses this offseason has been the addition of players who are capable of driving offensive possession. Newcomers like Jeff Skinner and Conor Sheary will certainly help in that regard, but after trading Evander Kane at the deadline last year (one of the few shot generators on the roster at the time), Thompson needs to be part of the fold.
Where Does He Fit?
Assuming Thompson makes the team out of training camp, where does he fit in the forward ranks? Given his ability as a shooter, one would think that he’d pair nicely with one of the Sabres’ playmaking young centers in Jack Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt. Perhaps that is where he would be best-suited long-term, but with right-wingers like Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo in the top-six, he could start out on the third line in 2018-19.
To assist in his acclimation to a full-time role with the team, having a familiar center like Patrik Berglund (who also came over from St. Louis as part of the O’Reilly trade) would be a desirable option. The 30-year-old pivot would serve as an excellent veteran mentor for him, at least to start the year.
On the opposite side, a fast, playmaking winger would be ideal in order to maximize Thompson’s offensive production. Evan Rodrigues certainly fits the bill in that regard. As he approaches a contract year, he’ll look to improve upon the 25 points in 48 games he posted in 2017-18. A bonafide shooting presence at right wing would certainly help in that regard.
Where Housley plans to deploy Thompson remains to be seen, but given his proclivity for juggling his forward lines, he will likely spend time with a variety of linemates, should he make the team. Either way, he brings a style of play that the Sabres don’t currently have on the roster and as of right now, he’s far enough along in his development to warrant serious consideration to don the Sabres emblem in 2018-19.