BROSSARD, Que. — "What do they want with Nate Thompson," asked an Eastern-based professional scout just two days after the Montreal Canadiens acquired the aging centre from the Los Angeles Kings in the lead up to last year’s trade deadline.
The scout in question had seen Thompson skate some of his 43 games with the Ottawa Senators during the 2017-18 season and had come away less than convinced he could still be a steady contributor to a team contending for a playoff spot in 2019.
"He’s slow," the scout said to us.
Sean Burke, who heads up pro scouting out West for the Canadiens, saw something different.
"I scout that area and was positive on Nate," said Burke via text message last weekend. "But we have a number of guys who watched him, including (Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin). He has been good for us and what we were looking for in that role."
In truth, Thompson has been much better than just good, and he’s probably been a lot better than anyone thought he’d be when he came over with a 2019 fifth-round pick in exchange for a 2019 fourth-round pick.
The Alaskan fit in so seamlessly last season that the Canadiens wasted no time in signing him to a new contract. On April 25, Thompson put pen to paper on a one-year, $1-million deal.
It’s what the 35-year-old did next that’s largely contributed to his strong start to this season.
"I went on a diet," Thompson said earlier this week. "It wasn’t like I lost 10 pounds. It was maybe three to five pounds, and I maybe put on a bit more muscle and got a bit leaner than I have been in the past.
"But I think the biggest thing was just working on my explosiveness, and my quickness. I think everyone in this league is strong, but it’s all about speed and that’s where the majority of my training was trying to work toward was having that speed."
That meant five to six training sessions a week throughout the entirety of the off-season with Dr. Chad Moreau, who runs Back To Function out of Lomita, Calif., near Hermosa Beach.
"We’d do a lot of competitions and challenges and he has a point system," Thompson said of Moreau, who is the older brother of former NHLer Ethan Moreau.
"I think it created some competitiveness. I was working out with (Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman) Jake Muzzin, (Calgary Flames forward) Milan Lucic and (Kings forward) Dustin Brown, and there were some other young guys with us. We were pushing each other, and I think having those challenges throughout the summer really pushed us to be competitive and it definitely helped me."
The evidence is plain to see. Through 15 games, Thompson has been flying up and down the ice.
It’s true he has yet to record a goal, but he’s already got five assists — or three less than he produced in 83 games split between the Canadiens and Kings last season.
And that’s only part of what has made him a valuable contributor to Montreal’s 8-5-2 record on the season.
When you look at the long shift Thompson had at the end of Tuesday’s game against Boston, helping the Canadiens cling to a 5-4 lead, you see the value in the work he did with Moreau.
"For Nate, he had a lot of power coming in but we tried to extend his power out, to give him more power endurance," Moreau said in a phone conversation with Sportsnet on Wednesday.
"Hockey’s one of those games where it’s not enough to be able to reproduce power for one shift or two strides. You have to be able to reproduce it over and over again. So one of our training tools for him was to extend his power out over a longer duration, so he could have a good 40-45 second shift where he doesn’t fatigue.
"Everyone gets tired at the end of a shift, but if you’re the guy who can just have a little bit more juice in the last 10 seconds of a shift and you can reproduce that over 15-20 shifts a game, then you’re going to have more success than if you’re hitting a wall 30 seconds into a shift."
So far, Thompson’s consistency within his shifts has stood out as a good quality in his play.
His teammates see it.
"Since he’s come in our lineup, he’s been consistent and he’s really stabilized the fourth line," said Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher on Wednesday.
"Nate’s a guy that (Canadiens coach) Claude Julien can really trust, and he can use him on the penalty kill and have him take those important D-zone draws. I think he’s been really good for the young linemates that he’s had, too. Guys come up and they understand just how complete a player he is and they really learn off of him. It really simplifies their game, it makes their game easier where they have less responsibility, and I think that’s probably a pretty underrated quality in that he’s able to make other guys’ jobs much easier."
It’s a direct, hard and strong brand of hockey that Thompson plays. He controls the action on his line — which currently has Nick Cousins on his left and Nick Suzuki on his right — and he makes high-percentage plays at both ends of the ice and rarely ends up out of position.
And Thompson’s unheralded ability to play with pace (on a team that demands it) is a big reason he secured his role this season, even though 20-year-olds Suzuki and Ryan Poehling and were threats to unseat him.
Thompson knew they’d challenge him for his job, so he did everything in his power to keep them at bay.
"I think for me, I’ve always been a guy that’s never really let myself get complacent," he said.
"Even coming into camp, I knew that I had a good opportunity, but it wasn’t given to me. I know nothing’s been given to me, so I think I had to come in here and still play my game to earn a spot. And at the same time, I don’t want to just play my game and keep my spot; I want to make an impact."
Thompson is doing that in multiple ways. He owns the Canadiens’ best faceoff percentage (55.7 per cent) and he’s making an indelible imprint on young players such as Suzuki, Poehling and 19-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
"I’ve picked up so many little things from him," Suzuki said Wednesday. "I’m asking him different little things, getting little tips from him. It’s not just defence. I think he’s definitely underrated in the offensive zone. He seems to be thinking a lot of the same things as me."
Thompson is doing a lot of them, too, leaving Julien impressed.
"I think it’s pretty obvious he’s been good," the coach said Wednesday.
"He’s been good everywhere. His pace has been good throughout the start of the season so far. His line’s been good, they’ve been producing, you’ve seen him make great plays, very reliable. Everything you want from a guy who has that role. He’s giving (it) to us, so (we’re) definitely very happy with his professionalism on the ice and off the ice. He’s doing his job well in both areas."
Even that East-based scout chimed in when we reached out to see if his impression of Thompson had changed.
"He’s been a pleasant surprise," he said. "I give him credit for doing what he needed to stay in the game."