The Buffalo Sabres made a splash on July 1 by sending Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 1st RD pick and a 2021 2nd RD pick.
While Sobotka and Berglund are serviceable players, the main “gets” for Botterill are the draft choices and 20-year-old forward Tage Thompson.
I know Sabres fans wanted Kyrou, Kostin or Thomas…but to be honest I’m not sure the trade happens if those were the prospects Botterill wanted. It’s also important to note that Thompson isn’t a slouch, the 6-5 forward is a nice piece and it’s clear that the Sabres view him as a big part of the core going forward.
In 2016 the Blues took Thompson 26th overall, and the team obviously saw something in the Arizona native.
If you look at Thompson’s NCAA career, it’s very impressive. While playing at UConn (not a NCAA powerhouse by any means) Thompson played 70 games, scoring 33 goals and and 31 assists for 64 career points.
In his freshman year he scored 14 goals (13 of which came on the powerplay), showcasing his impressive offensive instincts, and his elite NHL level shot.
His sophmore season saw an increase in his scoring (19 goals) and better yet, saw an increase in his even strength scoring (of his 19 goals 12 came 5-on-5).
The Blues then inked Thompson to his entry-level deal, and he began his pro career with a 16 game stint in the AHL at the end of the 2016-17 season.
While his 2017-18 NHL numbers won’t wow anyone, it’s important to note that Thompson showed flashes in the AHL, scoring 18 points in 30 games as a rookie.
Fans may ask why they should be excited about Tage Thompson, and that’s a fair question. He was expendable in the Blues organization because of players like Thomas, and Kyrou but Thompson has the tools that could turn him into a top-6 scoring winger for years to come.
While the Sabres best young forwards (Eichel and Mittelstadt) have the “superstar in the making” vibe to them, they both also have a pass-first mentality. Both centers are elite level playmakers who thrive with the puck on their stick.
Cue Tage Thompson, Thompson describes himself as a “shoot-first” type of player.
And for good reason, the kid has a laser of a shot, as evidenced below:
This is just one example of Thompson simply blasting the puck by the goalie, and there are many more.
Of his three NHL goals, two of them are came from far shots that were just way too quick for the goalie to react to. This goal against Dallas and Ben Bishop is a good example of how Thompson’s shot can simply zing past a goalie before they have a chance to react:
If given the right role, it’s not impossible to think that Thompson can be a consistent 20-goal scorer in the NHL because his shot is already at an elite level.
The first thing that you’ll notice about Thompson when he steps onto the ice in Sabres gear for the first time is his size. He is a tower of a human being, he stands at 6-5 and at 20, he may possibly grow a little more.
His height gives him distinct advantages in some areas. Thompson has a long reach, and has the ability to protect the puck from opposing players.
Thompson described himself as a power forward in his conference call with WGR, and it’s a fair assumption to make because he has such a large frame.
The one thing hurting Thompson right now is that he is very lanky. For a kid standing 6-5, you would like to see him add some more weight (he’s listed at 201) so he can really assert himself physically on other players.
If he can add another 10-15 lbs to his frame then he will be able to take the next step in becoming a top-6 power forward.
Hockey IQ and Puck Skills
Although he has a shoot-first mentality, Thompson possesses very good hands and excellent puck skills. He can make plays with little space, and has the ability to find his teammates and let them create their own offensive chances.
Below are two examples of Thompson’s puck skills and his hockey IQ:
— Steven Ellis (@StevenEllisNHL) May 4, 2018
This play was at the IIHF World Championships, as you can see Thompson had the puck in a tight space but was able to find Anders Lee (NYI) with a slick backhand pass that allowed Lee to walk in and roof the puck.
Hoy freakin’ crap this goal from USA’s Tage Thompson is beautiful https://t.co/RWQg0vubHB
— Born Salty (@cjzero) December 29, 2016
In this play, Thompson showcases his poise with the puck, his soft hands, and his ability get into the high danger scoring areas.
Using these plays as an example, you can see that Thompson has the potential to be a very good scoring forward, especially if he is paired up with an elite level playmaking center.
Although Thompson has the tools to be successful, he does have some shortcomings in his game.
St. Louis Blues reporter Andy Strickland described Thompson as an above average skater during an interview with WGR.
Thompson is an adequate skater with decent speed, but he doesn’t posses the “elite” speed that some of the other young guns in Buffalo’s organization (Eichel, Mittelstadt, Guhle etc.).
Speed was one of the two things that he said he was focused on improving, and he has the time to do it. But as stated before, if paired with an elite center who can feed him the puck, his lack of elite speed won’t be an issue at all.
Becoming more of a “Power” Forward
Thompson is such a large human being, and he needs to start utilizing his body more often. Sometimes he can try to stick handle through three guys rather than burying his shoulder and simply bulldozing by them.
Again, this is something that can be easily fixed by adding weight to his frame. As he gets stronger he will become more confident and it will translate to a more powerful game.
In his interviews with Buffalo media, adding strength was another key area that Thompson wanted to focus on.
The bright side is that Thompson knows his areas of weakness, and seems committed to improving upon them this summer. If he succeeds, the O’Reilly trade looks even better from a Sabres perspective.
Expected Role with the Sabres
According to Thompson himself, the Sabres have big things planned for their newest prospect and I would expect nothing less.
As it stands right now the Sabres are in desperate need of scoring from their wingers, they need serious help on their offensive depth, and they need a jolt in their second powerplay unit.
Well Thompson can help check all three boxes for the Sabres as early as next year.
Although he is listed as a Center, he has predominantly played on the right wing during his pro career and I would expect him to slot into a similar role with the Sabres.
Many, including Channel 7’s Matt Bové have projected Thompson to slot in on the Sabres “third line” with Casey Mittelstadt.
This would be a perfect role for Thompson, Mittelstadt can drive the line and Thompson can use his IQ to get into scoring areas and unload on pucks after Casey feeds them to him.
The Sabres also have a trigger man for their second powerplay unit in Thompson. The kid shoots, a lot… and having a potential 2nd unit of Guhle-Thompson-Rodrigues-Mittelstadt-Sheary gives the Sabres a lethal 2nd unit to help carry the load.
They may not have gotten Kyrou or Thomas, but the Sabres grabbed a good one in Tage Thompson… even if most fans don’t agree right now.
Stats provided by EliteProspects