Sometimes a player’s legacy with a team will be defined not by their play on the ice, but by the storyline surrounding their arrival to the franchise. Typically, when you trade a star player for a bevy of picks and prospects, you are doing so in hopes of accelerating a rebuild. Once a deal like this goes down, it’s easy to get stuck looking at what the player who left the franchise did and compare it to the output of what was received, whether that is fair or not.
When the Buffalo Sabres traded Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues back in 2018, they immediately saw their former star player go on to not only hoist the Stanley Cup but win the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process. To put it simply, that sort of success will negatively color any assets the Sabres returned in this deal, even if it is a bit unfair to compare prospects and depth players to an NHL veteran who had star talent.
One of those key prospects that Buffalo demanded in return for O’Reilly was 6-foot-7 forward, Tage Thompson. As the 26th overall pick by the Blues in 2016, it was easy to see why the Sabres were keen to add him to their franchise, as he had the frame to be a dominant top-six forward, especially if he could round out the defensive aspects of his game while adding some additional offensive bite to his toolkit.
In the three seasons following his acquisition, Thompson played a relatively small role for the Sabres. He split playing time with their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, and suffered a serious injury in 2019 that kept him out of the lineup for almost the entirety of the season. When he got back on the ice for 2020-21, he was still playing a relatively small role, as he averaged around 14 minutes of ice time each night while only scoring 14 points in 38 games played.
After this, questions rightfully were asked about how Thompson’s development was going, as it looked like he may not be able to reach his full potential with the Sabres. However, given his $1.4 million cap hit through 2023, the franchise had no reason to give up on him yet, as he was relatively low-cost, young, and held a lot of potential that could still be unlocked.
Thompson Is Finding His Groove for Sabres in 2021-22
While the start to the Sabres’ season has been a bit of a mixed bag, the franchise has had a few bright spots. One of these has been Thompson’s play, which has been some of the best for the team in 2021-22.
Through 30 games, he leads the team with 10 goals and sits second with 18 points. While these totals aren’t groundbreaking, the Sabres have suffered from an anemic offensive attack this season, which means that they need to get scoring from wherever they can.
Perhaps what is better for Buffalo than this scoring are some of Thompson’s advanced statistics. Defensively he has been above average, as he has a Corsi-For around 55 percent and a Fenwick-For around 53 percent. What this means is that when he is on the ice, the Sabres are controlling the puck more than their opponents, which is a small victory for a team that has struggled in this department.
Now, there are areas where improvements are needed. For example, Thompson is only winning 42 percent of his faceoffs, which is far too low for a player that should be a long-term center option for Buffalo. These aspects of his game can be worked on, however, which showcases why he should have a bright future as a middle-six centerman in the NHL.
Thompson Can Be a Piece in Sabres’ Future
Now, you shouldn’t take Thompson’s relatively strong start to the 2021-22 season as a sign that he is going to be a breakout superstar for Buffalo. Barring a serious jump in his development, that simply isn’t going to happen, as he doesn’t have the offensive toolkit to post 30 goals and/or 80 points in a season.
However, if you’re the Sabres, that doesn’t mean that you should be upset with how Thompson is developing. In order for a team to be great, they need more than just superstar talent, as it takes defensively responsible forwards that can make the life of their opponents miserable while chipping in a few timely goals along the way.
If things continue as they are now, Thompson could carve out a solid middle-six role with Buffalo, taking on 17 to 20 minutes of ice time each night while chipping in 20 or so goals and 40 points each season.
Now, is this what you dream of when you trade a star player like O’Reilly? No. But as a piece in that deal, it’s at least a positive return.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.