Sabres’ Tage Thompson Continuing His Remarkable Rise

One of the biggest points of interest surrounding the Buffalo Sabres entering this fall was whether or not Tage Thompson’s quantum leap last season was an apparition. It’s a question commonly asked after a player comes from out of nowhere in such a dramatic way and Sabres fans had to be wondering the same. Thompson has wasted no time answering that, however.

The towering center has gone off over the last five games, highlighted by his second career hat trick in an 8-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in which he also posted three assists. His 16 points currently lead the Sabres and are tied for eighth in the NHL (alongside teammate Rasmus Dahlin).

Thompson has had quite the whirlwind existence since coming to Sabres and has rescued his career after being badly mishandled in his development. In the process, he’s also rescued the Sabres.

The Disastrous Ryan O’Reilly Trade

Thompson’s arrival in Buffalo proved to come at a very inopportune time, through no fault of his own. The then-20-year-old was packaged to the Sabres from the St. Louis Blues in the controversial Ryan O’Reilly trade in the summer of 2018. Though the latter’s comments at the end of the previous season ruffled the feathers of many fans, the Sabres’ decision to move on from the superstar center proved to be very ill-advised. He was arguably the team’s top player at the time and a crucial piece for which the Sabres had no viable replacement.

As a result, Thompson was quickly thrust into a full-time spot on the roster for the 2018-19 campaign, despite having just 41 games of NHL experience and clearly needing further minor-league development. He gave his best efforts in his 65-game rookie season, but it was glaringly evident that he was in over his head. The Sabres realized their mistake and sent him to the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League (AHL) at the start of the next season, but injuries caused him to miss the majority of it.

Ryan O'Reilly Sabres
The Sabres were not prepared for the hole in their lineup left by Ryan O’Reilly, pictured here in 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers).

Complicating matters for the Sabres was that the other pieces received in that trade also failed to pay off, as Patrik Berglund walked away for personal reasons after half a season and Vladimir Sobotka quickly faded into the background. Things for the Blues, however, could not have worked out better. O’Reilly led the team on a stunning second-half rally from last place in the league that culminated in their first Stanley Cup championship, winning the Conn Smythe and Frank Selke Trophies in the process.

While the Blues were riding high, the Sabres were experiencing quite the opposite. The failures of the other players the Sabres acquired in the trade placed even further pressure on Thompson to succeed. But after a COVID-shortened 2021 season in which he posted 14 points in 38 games, that was exactly how it looked.

Back From the Brink

Things seemed to be at an all-time low for the Sabres and Thompson alike entering the 2021-22 campaign. The prognosis for both was dim at best and it seemed that the Scottsdale, AZ native had become yet another talented young player ruined by the Sabres’ organizational incompetence. But before he could be officially written off as damaged beyond repair, one of the most remarkable about-faces in franchise history occurred.

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Thompson erupted like an undiscovered volcano last season, netting 38 goals and 68 points in 78 games. In the blink of an eye, the frazzled young winger who previously looked like a perpetual deer in the headlights had morphed into a poised, confident skater (from ‘Bigger, stronger and more mature, Sabres’ Tage Thompson comes into his own as a No. 1 center,’ The Athletic, 4/14/2022). The unforeseen transformation helped propel the Sabres to a considerably improved season and the team finished with a .457 winning percentage (compared to .330 from the year prior).

Over the course of one season, Thompson went from a player who looked destined for fourth-line purgatory to the centerpiece of the Sabres’ offense, and his effects were obvious, as Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo posted strong returns to form. However, there have been countless one-season wonders in the annals of the NHL and Sabres fans had to be wondering if this would prove the same.

The pressure was on the man whose initials spell TNT (as Sabres’ broadcaster Dan Dunleavy ingeniously noticed) to prove that he could replicate his success. And though we’re only a month into the season, he seems determined to do just that.

Thompson Picks up Where He Left Off

The new season started somewhat slowly for the newly-minted 25-year-old, but he soon found the ignition. After recording just three points through his first seven games, he proceeded to post 13 in his next six (seven goals and six assists) to reclaim his spot as the Sabres’ leading scorer and continue his emergence as an elite scorer.

Thompson’s quick release and powerful slapshot have already made him one of the team’s two go-to guys on the power play (alongside Victor Olofsson), but he’s also showing more and more that he has no problem at even strength. The 6-foot-6 behemoth displays skating speed and puck-handling abilities that players of his stature usually aren’t capable of, as seen against the Detroit Red Wings on Halloween and in an impressive comeback victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 2.

It’s been exactly what the Sabres were hoping for and has helped the team to a decent 7-5-0 record as of Nov. 7. Like Thompson, Buffalo is also out to show that last season wasn’t a fluke and it will need him to be the example in that effort. With Skinner, Dahlin and Alex Tuch on board, the Sabres have the makings of a strong lineup if it can build further off its improvement from last season.

Though he obviously won’t produce at such a torrid rate all season, Buffalo’s chances this season look all the better with their big man leading the way. If the team can keep the momentum of its solid start rolling forward, the Sabres could turn many heads this year.