MONTREAL—The comment was brief and hard to disagree with.
It was made by a pro scout visiting the Bell Centre on Feb. 19, in the first intermission of a game the Montreal Canadiens were playing against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I’m not sure what the Canadiens were thinking on getting Nate Thompson," he said of the trade Montreal made seven days earlier with the Los Angeles Kings. The one that sent a 2019 fourth-rounder away for the 34-year-old journeyman and a 2019 fifth-rounder.
It was fairly evident at the time that Marc Bergevin, the general manager of one of the youngest teams in the NHL, thought it couldn’t hurt to make such a low-cost acquisition, to add a veteran of 672 games and 62 more in the playoffs. That Bergevin figured it would also help to add a player who had won 53.1 per cent of his faceoffs with Los Angeles to a Montreal team that ranked 28th in the category.
What wasn’t clear was how the Canadiens were going to benefit from Thompson’s experience and his faceoff success if he couldn’t play at the speed required to execute the team’s fast-break system.
"He’s a great guy, but you could see even a couple of years ago, when he was with Ottawa, that he just couldn’t keep up," the scout said. "It’s hard to see him as an upgrade on what they have right now."
Perhaps it’s why one of the slowest teams in the NHL—the 30th-placed Kings—was giving Thompson up for next to nothing. Frankly, his first strides with the Canadiens did little to dispel the notion.
But as time has gone on, and as the games have taken on greater significance, with the Canadiens battling for one of the two available wild-card positions in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Thompson’s contribution to their success has been undeniable. In 24 games, he’s won 141 of 257 (55 per cent) of the faceoffs he’s taken, notched seven points and managed a 45 per cent Corsi for despite starting 69 per cent of his shifts in the defensive zone.
He plays a simple, hardnosed game. He competes at both ends of the ice, he’s created several scoring chances for a variety of linemates, and he has been a key member of a penalty killing unit that ranks ninth in the NHL since he joined the Canadiens—killing off 51 of 60 penalties since Feb. 11.
It’s nothing short of impressive for a player who was riding out his career with a team that was going nowhere. A player who’s had many ups and downs over his 12 years in the NHL, and one who battled his demons and managed to come out thriving on the other side.
Not only has Thompson’s play surprised us, it’s shocked some of his teammates, too.
"I think he’s been amazing for us since we picked him up," said Thompson’s linemate Paul Byron in the wake of Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. "He’s so reliable, so steady. He’s a much better skater and playmaker than I ever thought he was playing against him. For whatever reason, I think we have great chemistry together."
You could see it on Tuesday, when Byron collected a puck behind Tampa’s net and syphoned it out front for Thompson to score his first goal as a Canadien.
The Alaskan quickly took the puck from his backhand to his forehand and picked the top corner of Edward Pasquale’s net to tie the game 1-1. It was a play that once again saw him display the type of skill few in these parts anticipated he had prior to landing with Canadiens.
"It was awesome," said Thompson, who celebrated the goal with an emphatic fist pump. "To score a goal as a Montreal Canadien is something pretty special, something I’ll never forget. And to do it, especially in a game like this, it was a lot of fun."
You can’t help but remark how much fun Thompson has been having in the role he’s been given by Canadiens coach Claude Julien. He’s averaging 13:21 in ice-time per game and has played upwards of 17 on a couple of occasions. Every night, he’s counted on for big faceoffs in his own end and counted on for key shifts against the opposition’s best forwards.
And you can see how much Thompson is relishing this chance he’s been given with the Canadiens, and how happy it makes him to be contributing at this time of year.
"It’s huge," Thompson said prior to Tuesday’s win. "To be in this situation, to have a chance still to make the playoffs, to do it at home and play against the best team in the league? What an opportunity."
It was unpredictable Thompson would play such a big part in the Canadiens rising to it.