If you would have asked Sabres fans before the season started who would lead the team in points by year’s end, very few, if any, would have answered with Tage Thompson. Yet, when the dust settled on one of the more interesting campaigns in recent Sabres history, Thompson was left standing with not only the team lead in points, but goals as well. The turnaround he had this season was nothing short of incredible, turning himself from a failed piece of the Ryan O’Reilly trade to a 38-goal scorer, seemingly overnight.
Preseason Expectations for Thompson Were Bleak
Heading into the 2021-2022 season, there were very little expectations for Thompson to perform, if any at all. He had been with the Sabres for four seasons prior to this year, and he scored a combined 15 goals and 26 points in 104 games. He struggled to maintain a spot in the lineup, and when he was dressed he delivered little to no impact on the ice.
Things started to turn around in earnest down the late stretch of the 2020-2021 season. Thompson became a regular for the Sabres by mid-January, and while he wasn’t producing much offensively at first, he started showing signs of improvement after the Sabres fired Ralph Krueger in the middle of March. Thompson scored seven of his eight goals last season from April 1 on, only a few weeks after Don Granato took over as head coach.
After showing some signs of life down that late stretch, Granato announced Thompson would be moving to center for the 2021-2022 season. The move was mocked and looked at as a sign of desperation. The challenge of playing center certainly awoke something in Thompson, and he rewarded the Sabres patience with a remarkable breakout season.
Thompson had a Spectacular Season for the Sabres
Things were bleak, to say the least, heading into this season. Sam Reinhart was traded in the offseason, Jack Eichel had played his last game as a Sabre, and the roster was seemingly devoid of the talent needed for them to finish anywhere other than the NHL basement. Thompson stepped in and not only gave Sabres fans something to cheer about, but something to be hopeful for moving forward. His breakout season culminated in 38 goals and 30 assists for a team-leading 68 points.
The move to center paid off for him, as he appeared more comfortable with his skating and size. Thompson used his 6-foot-7 frame as an offensive weapon, shielding the puck from defenders to create shooting lanes for himself. This season also saw him shoot the puck more, and his 15 percent shooting percentage shows just how dangerous his shot has become. Not only did his accuracy improve allowing him the ability to pick corners, but his shot seemed heavier this season and he could power pucks past goaltenders.
Perhaps the most exciting development for the Sabres and Thompson was his chemistry with Jeff Skinner, and their ability to enhance each other’s games. They were creative in the offensive zone and on the break-out, with Skinner’s offensive vision, skating and passing ability complementing Thompson’s booming shot and puck-handling skill. Adding Alex Tuch to that combination created one of the NHL’s more dangerous lines during the second half of the season. The trio was responsible for 28 goals in their 42 games together, and was seemingly a threat to score whenever they touched the ice. They were a large part of the Sabres’ improved play down the late stretch of the season, giving Sabres fans something to look forward to heading into next season.
Future Looks and Final Grade
There is no other way to describe Thompson’s season other than incredible, especially considering his ascent from being written-off by fans in the preseason to his emergence as a legitimate offensive force for Buffalo. He also supplied Sabres fans with some great memories this season, whether it be his 30th goal, his attempt to reach 40, or his first NHL hat-trick. Thompson earns an A+ as a final grade.
Looking ahead to next season and beyond, it is hard to see Tuch, Thompson and Skinner being broken up any time soon. The Sabres are still likely a few years away from the playoffs, but having that trio together gives them a line they can lean on to produce night in and night out. Thompson will be a restricted free agent after next season, but if he produces at a similar level that he did this season, Buffalo can commit to him as part of their core having seen consistent performance over a two-year period.
Zach Rohde is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW. Growing up in the Buffalo area during the late 2000s, the Sabres success fueled his passion for hockey. He has written about the Sabres for another site in Buffalo previously, and covered Buffalo Sports for a brief time as a freelance sports assistant for Spectrum News Buffalo before moving to a full time position in general news. Twitter: @ZachRohde