It’s Tage Thompson’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
The Sabers’ forward has become the star of the season. One year removed from what we thought was a breakout campaign that saw him leap from single-digit goal totals to a stunning 38, Thompson is on pace to blow past that mark. He has 21 goals through 28 games, several of the jaw-dropping highlight variety, and scored five against the Blue Jackets last week in what was also his second six-point game of the year. This guy is unstoppable.
So how can this go wrong?
Sorry, that’s the pessimist in me, but it’s a side that’s served me well in spotting NHL trends. There’s no story so good that somebody somewhere won’t find a way to screw it up.
To be clear, I’m not going to look at this from a Sabers perspective. Their fans have suffered enough, and with Thompson locked in a long-term extension that already looks like a steal, maybe this really is a can’t-miss win for Buffalo.
Instead, let’s look at the other 31 teams, those poor schmoes who don’t get to send Tage Thompson over the boards to wreck everyone. Right now, somebody in every front office around the league is looking at Thompson’s season and trying to figure out what it means for them.
What are those other teams going to learn from the Age of Tage? Specifically, what are they going to learn that’s wrong, and that causes them to make bad decisions? I’ve got five suggestions.
Your struggling fourth-liner is a potential superstar
For the first four seasons of his NHL career, Thompson was an 18-goal scorer. No, not in an average season — that was the total for his entire career, one that was mostly spent plugging away in the bottom six between occasional disappointing trips up the lineup (when he wasn’t hurt or in the AHL). Last year, the light bulb went off and he became a star. But for years before that, he was Just A Guy. One with occasional flashes of potential, sure, but never more than that.
Good news: Every team has a few players like that on the roster right now. Which means every team, if they squint hard enough, has a few future Thompsons.
Imagine you’re the GM of an NHL team. Chances are, the offense isn’t clicking quite as well as you’d hoped. Maybe you have a few injuries, or the puck just isn’t bouncing your way. Even your coach, who’d rather lose 2-1 than win 6-5, admits he might like a bit more scoring pop. And the local fans and media keep asking when you’re going to do something.
Now you don’t have to. No need to make any trades or aggressive moves, because the future is already here, and it’s that guy who hasn’t scored in 20 games. What are you going to do, waive the next Tage Thompson? Stay the course, and you’ll be rewarded in the end. It might take three or four years, but patience is a virtue for a wise executive like you.
Big guys are back in
For years, the NHL has been slowly morphing from a league where size was king to one where it doesn’t matter like it once did. There was a time when it felt like the first number any GM looked at on a player’s resume was his height, and anyone who wasn’t big got discarded, even if they were Martin St. Louis. Lately, that’s been changing, as teams have recognized that undersized players were a market inefficiency, and that big guys were often just lumbering behemoths who couldn’t keep up when the game got fast.
But now, along comes Thompson, a guy listed at 6-foot-7, and all those old-school GMs are back in the game. They told us that size mattered, and now we’re seeing it play out on highlight reels. It’s hard to imagine the 200 hockey men enjoying anything more than a clip of a guy scoring a goal, then celebrating with a group hug from a bunch of teammates who came up to his armpits.
Does Thompson use his size to play a classic physical style? Not really. He’s not out there throwing big open-ice hits, or crushing guys in the corner, and he fights maybe once a season. Nobody who watches him is getting him mixed up with Eric Lindros or Zdeno Chara. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t using his size to his advantage, because it’s just about impossible to defend against a guy with the hands to deke out a defenseman and the wingspan to touch both faceoff circles at the same time.
The lesson here is clear: You want the next Tage, you draft the tallest guy you can find. That one scout on your staff who’s been around since the Dutton administration and just hits “sort by height” on every junior roster? He was right all along. Leave those undersized scorers who never amount to anything for the other teams, it’s time to go back to drafting dudes who bump their kneecaps on the crossbar.
Bet on shooting percentage
Yeah, you know we were going to have to do this one. Thompson’s first four seasons saw him play 145 games, and record a shooting percentage of 6.9. His breakout 2021-22 season saw that rocket all the way up to 15 percent. Any savvy hockey fan knew where this was going, because those sorts of percentage-based explosions almost never last, and teams that pay for them almost always regret it.
The Sabers didn’t listen, and locked up Thompson to a seven-year, $49 million extension. He still had a year left on his old contract, so the Sabers could have waited, taking an additional year to see what they really had. After all, this was the same team that had made the same mistake on guys like Jeff Skinner and Ville Leino. Instead of learning from those lessons, they rushed to get a Thompson deal done early, paying full price for what was all but certain to be a one-year wonder.
It’s, uh, working out OK.
Don’t worry, Thompson isn’t shooting 15 percent again. That would have been unrealistic. Instead, he’s even better, shooting north of 16 percent so far this year. Is that sustainable? Probably not, but nobody wants to say so because right now Thompson is basically an angry parent upping the punishments on a mouthy child. Oh, you don’t like 16 percent? Keep running your mouth, bucko, maybe we’ll try 20 percent next year.
His extension hasn’t even started yet, and Thompson already looks underpaid. And sure, you could say that one outlier doesn’t disprove 20 counter-examples. You’d say that if you were dumb, because shooting percentage binges are sustainable now. Tage says so, and your favorite team’s GM can’t wait to listen.
Be patient with first-round picks
Most NHL GMs love the “draft-and-develop” approach, mainly because it takes forever. If you can sell your fan base on a long-term rebuild, you’re basically buying yourself at least two or three years before anyone will ask any questions about what those prospects are up to. If you draft a goalie, you can stash him away for the better part of a decade before anyone even remembers.
But eventually, somebody might ask about those picks. And that’s especially true for first-rounders. After all, those are the guys who get the full draft day treatment, with photo ops on stage in their new jerseys and weirdly fitted ball caps. They probably jump right to the top of your prospect list, and fans immediately start reciting their names as proof that the future is bright.
That’s all good. At least, it’s good until you get a few years down the line and that first-round pick isn’t contributing yet. They’re probably in the NHL by that point, but they’re not putting up big numbers, and fans are starting to grumble. If things get really bad, you might start hearing that dreaded word, “bust.”
That’s very bad news for a GM and his front office. Drafting is tricky, sure, but first-rounders are supposed to hit. Whiffing on one is a major missed opportunity.
Well, not anymore. There are no more first-round busts. There are only Tage Thompsons who haven’t Tage Thompsoned yet.
Thompson was a first-round pick, going 26th in the 2016 draft, ahead of guys like Alex DeBrincat and Carter Hart who had a more immediate impact. It took five full years for him to have an impact at the NHL level, but he got there. Less savvy teams might have written a player like that off, muttering about the fallacy of sunk costs. But now we know better. Every first-round pick deserves patience, because they might be the next Thompson. Everyone just calm down and wait, your GM’s got this.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t actually the Sabers who drafted Thompson, and that brings us to our last key lesson…
There is no such thing as a bad trade
The Sabers acquired Thompson on July 1, 2018, as part of a package from the Blues that also included Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and two draft picks. In exchange, they sent Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis. Then they watched him have a career year, win the Selke, and lead the Blues to their first Stanley Cup while winning the Conn Smythe.
Berglund lasted 23 games in Buffalo before leaving the team and the NHL. Sobotka stuck around for two seasons, scoring six goals. One pick was traded away in the Colin Miller deal, while the other turned into Ryan Johnson, a good blue line prospect who didn’t rank in the organization’s most recent top 10.
All in all, the trade was a certified dud. And for years, it wasn’t unusual to see it show up on the “worst trades” list. Sure, O’Reilly wanted out of Buffalo. But the Sabers basically gave the Blues a Stanley Cup in exchange for a handful of magic beans.
But that’s the thing about magic beans — sometimes, one sprouts into a magic beanstalk. It took a few years, but last season moved the O’Reilly trade back into the “maybe OK” column. And this year, it’s starting to look like a win for the Sabres. That’s not to say the Blues wouldn’t do it all over again, because flags fly forever and they obviously would. But now it looks like a savvy move for the Sabers too, one that they can build their future around.
Let that be a lesson to all you grumpy fans out there. Just because your team’s GM traded away one of your only good players for a bunch of guys who haven’t done anything to make the team better doesn’t mean it was a bad deal. In fact, it might be a very good deal, made by a very wise GM who you should stop criticizing.
(Wait, does Thompson have a nickname yet? Because “Magic Beanstalk” is honestly pretty good. You can use that one, Sabers fans, it’s on me.)
So what have we learned from the Tage Thompson experience?
Maybe lots, if you’re an NHL GM. The main lesson is that everyone needs to stop being mean to you and start having more patience, because your draft busts are good and your worst trades were brilliant. Also, bet on big guys with no track record and crazy-high shooting percentages. What could go wrong?
I think the better lesson is that we can’t learn anything. No, really, I think that’s the best option here — not for GMs, but for fans. Yes, we could try to pick apart Thompson’s last two seasons and try to extrapolate legitimate hockey lessons. But isn’t it more fun if we just shrug and enjoy the ride?
Maybe Tage Thompson is just a hockey unicorn, one that can’t be explained, only enjoyed. Don’t try to capture it for further study, because it will get spooked and gallop away, never to be seen again. Instead, just sit back and appreciate the magic. Right up until it shrugs off two checkers and goes top shelf on your goalie in overtime.
(Top photo of Tage Thompson: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)