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Deep Dive: Tage Thompson

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It was a disappointing first season for Tage Thompson, but there’s still hope for is future

Buffalo Sabres v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Tage Thompson was the key prospect acquired in the Ryan O’Reilly deal. The 21-year-old didn’t have a good first season with the Buffalo Sabres. In fact, he had one of the worst on-ice impact seasons in terms of goals above replacement for a player of his age.

The Sabres oddly decided to take a different approach with Thompson. Jason Botterill preaches the belief that young players should work on their craft in the AHL. We saw players like C.J. Smith, Danny O’Regan, and Lawrence Pilut be returned to the minors when they showed any signs of struggles. Yet, the Sabres kept the former first-round pick with the club until the final few weeks of the season. He showed small windows of improvement, but for the most part, he looked overwhelmed in the NHL.

When Thompson did end up with the Amerks at the end of the season he finished strong. He scored six goals and nine points in eight games in the AHL. It appears as though he’s in the “no-mans land” if you will. He’s not ready for a full-time NHL job yet but is probably too good to play in the AHL an entire season.

Poor First Impression

So, now what?

As I mentioned, Thompson had one of the most underwhelming seasons for a player of his age. He struggled in a lot of different areas of his game that it gives some concern about his long-term future. He’s still young, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to his game. Thompson needs to work on building some muscle to his frame, learning how to use his size to create space and work on improving his release.

He’s not a player that will often go to the high-quality shooting areas on the ice. He relies heavily on his shot to beat the goaltender clean, but he takes too long to release the puck, which allows defenders to get in the way. When he does get the shot off quickly, he’s often rewarded with a goal or rebound opportunity for his teammates.

The shot chart below from Sean Tierney shows you how much of a perimeter player Thompson was this season. Players with an elite shot can live in this world, but while Thompson has a hard shot, it’s not one of the best in the league. It’s often erratic and as I have a said a few times now, slow on the release.

He has the skill to get scoring opportunities with his stick-handling, however, he relied on that skill too often last season. A few times it resulted in costly turnovers that ended up in the net.

Sobotka Impact

Thompson needs to play in primarily offensive zone starts with a center that can create opportunities for him to finish and linemates that are good in their own end of the ice would be ideal for him as well.

It’s hard to get a full read on if Thompson was solely responsible for his negative on-ice impacts or if playing 49% of his time on the ice with Vladimir Sobotka was a considerable impact. According to Evolving Hockey, Sobotka was his most common linemate at even strength. Followed by Casey Mittelstadt (26%), Jason Pominville (17%), and Johan Larsson (15%).

This sort of thing is becoming a trend with this player profiles if you haven’t caught on. Numerous players on the roster were not done any favors by the coaching staff with their usage, linemates, and even strength deployment. Thompson is just another example of that.

Looking through the linemates data on Natural Stat Trick it’s clear to see that Thompson had success when he was on the ice with Pominville, but away from Vladimir Sobotka. He also had success with Mittelstadt and Pominville, yet that line only saw 13 minutes on the ice together at 5 on 5.

Thompson and Pominville spent 97 of their 127 minutes on the ice together at 5 on 5 with Sobotka as their center. The results were poor and actually, they were one of the worst lines the Sabres could have put on the ice. Away from Sobotka, they excelled in possession and expected goal metrics as the chart below shows you.

In the piece I recently wrote about Mittelstadt, I touched on how he did well playing with Pominville and with Thompson having success it only makes sense to play them together. Of course, when Thompson and Mittelstadt were on a line together they played 55 minutes at 5 on 5 with Kyle Okposo. If you can’t recall, Okposo was good at negatively impacting offense this past season.

I tried to dig into reasons why the Sabres coaching staff wouldn’t try that trio together more than 13 minutes or didn’t at the very least try Pominville and Thompson with other centermen besides Sobotka. I stumbled upon something that is more of a bigger picture view of analytics.

The data can show you many different things on a player looking at individual numbers. If you want to get a full scope of the thing you are reviewing, it’s important to look at all the data points to get an accurate assessment. This situation with Thompson and Pominville is a perfect example.

According to Natural Stat Trick, those two when on the ice without Sobotka had zero goals for per 60 and 7.92 goals against per 60. Looking at that data point paints an ugly picture of that line pairing.

Now, here’s the rest of their analytical data together at 5 on 5:

  • CF/60: 54.39%
  • xG/60: 60.77%
  • SCF/60: 60.00%
  • HDCF/60: 66.67%
  • On-ice save percentage: 73.33%

That last stat is the important part. Pominville and Thompson were good in all other analytical areas of the game away from Sobotka, yet they were bad in 5 on 5 goal differential. The reason is because of the on-ice save percentage of .733.

In other words, the duo had some bad luck with the puck going in the net on limited scoring opportunities against. If you looked at the first stat of goal differential and nothing else a bad determination of their play may be made.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Thompson has a lot of work to do to get back some faith in his long-term future with the club. Really only one player started their career so poor with on-ice impacts and went on to have a successful career as a productive player.

That player is Carolina Hurricane’s forward Nino Niederreiter. The RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey shows how poorly he impacted his team while the Islanders. Now, he was a key acquisition in the Hurricanes making it to the Eastern Conference Final.

The Sabres don’t need to gift Thompson a roster spot to start next season again. If he doesn’t earn a spot out of camp, there’s nothing wrong with him starting the season in Rochester. Work on a few areas of his game and build some confidence before making the jump back to the NHL.

Hopefully, Ralph Krueger can help to further develop Thompson’s game. He has the tools to be a nice middle-six player on the team but has to be willing to change his approach to different situations on the ice.