The development and story for Tage Thompson have been an odd one to follow early on this season. He had a great Prospects Challenge and a good preseason, which earned him a roster spot to open the season with the Buffalo Sabres.
Then, it became evident quickly in the regular season that he may not be ready for the NHL game yet. He played the first seven games of the season and then sat down for three games, played in two more games and then was sat again for four.
Now, he’s likely going to play his third straight game tonight in Winnipeg, but there’s still a lot left to be desired in his game.
The plan the coaching staff has communicated is they want to develop the 6’6’’ winger with coaching and video. As opposed to what appears to be the obvious approach of letting him work on his game in the minors.
Thompson is only 20-years-old and has 46 AHL games under his belt after two years at the University of Connecticut. He was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2016 (26 overall) and may have been rushed to the NHL last season. It’s rare that you see a player selected in the back half of round one, step right into the league and make an impact one year out of college. Usually, those players require more development and time in the minor leagues.
Although he’s a big piece of the Ryan O’Reilly trade with the Blues, the Sabres should not feel the need to rush him into the lineup. His success in the future is more important than the immediate limited impact he could provide this season.
This development plan that has been set for Thompson is difficult to understand as it’s not an approach that a lot of teams take in developing young players. It’s becoming an even bigger question mark now that we’re not seeing any improvement in his game when he’s in the lineup.
He continues to struggle to have any offensive impact on the game, turns the puck over, and is a liability defensively. He has deceptive speed that we rarely see. Thompson also hasn’t figured out how to use his big frame and find the soft spots in the defense to get off his above-average shot.
Usually, that is figured out by playing in roles that give you that opportunity and not through video review.
All in all, it’s not hard to see he just doesn’t look comfortable.
Having said all this, if the Sabres want to continue this development path and keep Thompson in the NHL, they need to start utilizing him properly. Asking him to contribute offensively playing on the fourth line with players like Patrik Berglund, John Larsson, and Zemgus Girgensons is not setting the odds in his favor.
That fourth line is usually tasked with creating energy and playing a defensive game against the opponent’s top offensive line. Neither of those tasks is what Thompson excels at.
The catch 22 here is that looking at the lineup, there’s no room for him to slide up to another line. Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo, and Jason Pominville are contributing offensively right now.
Another reason why a demotion to the AHL make sense.
Outside of placing him on a different line, the Sabres could use him as a threat on the power play. He has a big frame and one of the best shots on the team. Playing on one of the units, which have struggled recently, would give him space to get his shot off and build some confidence. Placing Thompson on a power play unit, in theory, seems like a better idea than having Berglund slot in on the top unit.
It’ll be interesting to see how things continue to go with Thompson over the next few weeks. If he continues to not show signs of improvement, you have to wonder how long they can continue this development approach, that as of now, does not appear to be working.