The National Hockey League is set to begin its season on Wednesday, with the Buffalo Sabres scheduled for their first game on Thursday evening against the Washington Capitals. As Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall and company prepare to face Alexander Ovechkin, Zdeno Chara and the rest of the Caps, I’m going to spend a little bit of time over the coming days investigating some questions that still lie ahead.
First up: Just how much has Tage Thompson’s game improved, and how much more improvement can it see over the course of the season, particularly if he gets to play with guys like Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall?
Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger called Tage Thompson “one of the bright lights” in camp this season (H/T Mike Harrington) and it’s hard to disagree. Thompson has looked sharp and has been a surprisingly good fit alongside Eichel and Hall on the team’s top line so far.
Thompson goal off feed from Hall. pic.twitter.com/aTh7I3EECk— Ben Mathewson (Optimistic Sabres Fan) (@Ben_Mathewson) January 10, 2021
It’s particularly impressive given that he hasn’t played since November 2019 and appeared in just one NHL game last season. Overall, the 23-year-old - who is listed at a whopping 6’7”, by the way - has recorded 21 points in 107 NHL games to date.
If you would’ve told me a year and a half ago that there was a chance Thompson would be playing on the top line - it would’ve been unbelievable. A lot can change in a short time, and while it’s clearly very early, I like what I’ve seen so far from his line with Eichel and Hall and I look forward to watching it in the coming days - and I’m not the only one.
Here’s what Hall himself had to say about Thompson from his first impressions:
Taylor Hall on Tage Thompson: pic.twitter.com/3Zf6nrbKVy— Heather Engel (@engelheather) January 10, 2021
From his past performances, it’s easy to forget that Thompson was, indeed, a first-round draft pick, selected by the St. Louis Blues among players like Max Jones, Riley Tufte and Brett Howden. It’s also easy to think of Thompson as just one of the pieces that the Sabres ended up with in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, but this is his chance to prove himself as more than that, and prove his legitimate worth as a player in the Sabres organization.
He’s also starting this season with a fresh, three-year contract signed back in October, which will see him take on a $1.4 million cap hit in each of the next three seasons.
In years past, Thompson has averaged roughly 12 minutes of ice time per game (though his time with Buffalo is obviously a small sample size). Among the forwards he’s seen the most ice time with during his time with the Sabres so far? Vladimir Sobotka, Casey Mittelstadt Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons.
If he’s going to take on the first line with Eichel (a 50+ point player in each of his five seasons to date) and Hall (a Hart Memorial Trophy winner whose career high saw him accrue 93 points in one season!), it’ll be a big step up for Thompson in a number of ways. Expectations will be higher than if he’s playing third- or fourth-line. He’ll also see more playing time, and hopefully less time in the press box. His opportunities, too, will be boosted by playing among such high-caliber players, and this can only help his growth as a player.
Personally, I’ve never been too high or too low on Thompson. Last season, he was barely a blip on the NHL radar and played only 16 games in Rochester, so we never really got a good look at him to make a fair judgement. His first season in Buffalo was fine, nothing spectacular but nothing overtly terrible, either.
He’s one of those players that I’d like to see more from and really be able to see just what they’re capable of, and putting him on a line with two of the best players on the Sabres will give him the best opportunity to showcase that. Let’s see what they can do in practices the next few days and in the first couple games of the season, and go from there.