Wiebe’s World: Sabres’ Tage Thompson era has arrived, iPad gate hovers over NHL

Buffalo Sabres centre Tage Thompson is congratulated for his goal against the Minnesota Wild during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

BUFFALO — Tage Thompson has made a habit of trying to reach new heights.

When you’re involved in a blockbuster trade like the one he was part of, it simply comes with the territory — especially when the other guy, Ryan O’Reilly, led the St. Louis Blues to a Stanley Cup and was given the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2019.

The weight of expectation can be a heavy burden if you don’t handle it properly. But Thompson had the right demeanour to ensure he would not be overwhelmed trying to live up to the hype of being the centrepiece in the deal that was supposed to help the Buffalo Sabres finally get things turned around.

The days of wondering when Thompson will bloom are well in the rearview mirror. For the folks that see him on a daily basis, the explanation for why that’s happening is crystal clear.

Yes, having that skill set in a 6-foot-6 frame can be a big help and makes him a bit of a unicorn.

But this isn’t just a flash and dance situation where a guy simply burst onto the scene because of his talent.

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“That’s what stands out. (His) day-to-day,” said Sabres coach Don Granato. “Behind the scenes, every day, through all the adversity he’s challenged and the doubt that the outside hockey world has had on him for the last three, for years in a very difficult trade, he kept doing the right things every day.

“He looked within himself, he self evaluated very well and he targeted ways to become better every single day, offseason and in-season. He has finally broken a threshold and reaping the rewards of all that work that he put in consistently. And it’s all about habits. He’s got those in order.”

Having those things in order allows Thompson to be more than just a high-end point producer, it’s made him a leader of a high-octane team that remains in a playoff battle in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.

“Being 6-foot-6 or whatever he is and then being able to have the hands he does and the shot, it’s an ability that he’s got God given talent, but also the work ethic to get where he needs to be,” said Sabres goalie Craig Anderson. “It’s real easy to be a guy that’s satisfied with just being big and having some skill. But for a guy to have the drive, the desire and the mental capacity to want more, that’s something that is unique and he’s able to put it all together. It’s been fun to watch and we all kind of look to him for leadership that way, as far as his work ethic and his commitment to do the right things and his battle level. It’s only going to get better as time goes on.

“Anytime you do something once, there’s a ‘wow’ factor. When you’re able to do it on a consistent level, that’s where you open your eyes and say this guy is for real. That’s all you want from any of your players, regardless of what their ceiling is, you want them to be consistent. You don’t want one player one night and the next night, you get something else and that’s kind of where Tage has taken his game to another level. This year, it’s been on a consistent basis. You know what you’re going to get from him on a nightly (basis).”

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That’s not to say the wow factor has vanished.

It can’t help but grow when you see the highlight-reel moments he’s been able to deliver as he’s worked his way into the discussion as one of the upper-echelon players in the NHL.

“It’s just a little bit of internal drive, some hunger,” said Thompson, the Blues’ 26th overall pick in 2016. “I had a good season last year and wanted to try and improve and get better and help our team win. For me, if I’m scoring it gives us a good chance to win. Along with me taking a step, our whole team (has). Look around the room and a lot of guys have taken that next step to get better. That helps me as well.

“My linemates (Alex Tuch and Jeff Skinner) are playing unbelievable hockey right now and that’s a big reason I’m doing so well. Because they’re playing phenomenal. It’s a team sport, it’s not just one guy. Anytime you get guys elevating their game, it’s going to bring guys up with them. We’ve done a good job of pushing each other and battling.”

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When a guy with 264 NHL games on his resume produces a pair of six-point outings and three hat tricks in 41 games — including a five-goal outburst against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 7 — people around the league are going to take notice.

“Watching the guy, it’s unreal,” said Winnipeg Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey.
“The release he has. A big, strong, powerful guy with a high skill set and a heavy, heavy shot. He’s having a great year, clearly. Picked up where he left off last year.”

That’s the thing about Thompson.

He should have been on your radar already, as he notched 38 goals and 68 points last season as a 24-year-old, but it turns out he was merely scratching the surface.

As the Sabres hit the midway point, Thompson enters Sunday’s action third in the NHL in goals with 31 (behind Connor McDavid and David Pastrnak) and sixth in the NHL in points with 58. This leaves him plenty of time to surpass the career-highs he established last season.

“We’ve seen it for years. It’s not something that’s just ‘oh, all of a sudden he just scored 38 and he’s whatever,’” said Sabres captain Kyle Okposo. said Granato, who also coached him for the US National Under-18 team in 2014-15. He’s been the best player in practice for a number of years. It was kind of (a matter of) when is this going to translate into the game, this confidence, this maturity, growing into his body and the confidence to know he can do it in a game.

“It’s always been in there, so it’s been fun to see what he’s doing this year and how he’s doing it this year, how he’s scoring goals and how competitive he is and how he’s leading the way in more ways than just scoring. It hasn’t changed him as a person. He’s still the same hard-working guy.”

That hard work was required of Thompson dating back to his time in the US National Development Team, where his teammates included the likes of current Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews, Florida Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk, Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller, Anaheim Ducks winger Troy Terry, Minnesota Wild winger Jordan Greenway and Blue Jackets forward Jack Roslovic, among others.

“We went through some challenging times when he was with us,” said Granato, who also coached him for the US National Under-18 team in 2014-15. “We had some prolific talent on that team, so he was a third or fourth line player in that bunch. He didn’t get the special teams time or whatever, but we had lots of conversations at that age where, ‘these guys are not better than you long-term, don’t ever buy into that. Even if they’re getting a little bit more ice time or situation time right now.’

“I lived that with him. Just because someone is playing ahead of you today doesn’t mean they’re going to be ahead of you tomorrow. Stay on it. We had lots of talks over that span when we were together with the national team and when we arrived here and we were together here. To see him break that threshold and become a No. 1 centre in the NHL is rewarding for me too. Knowing the battle he had along the path.”

Being in the heart of the race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy is something Thompson takes a lot of pride in and he’s not afraid to say it’s a piece of hardware he’d like to take home one day.

“Absolutely. It’s an honour to even be in the running. If you would have asked me two years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been a goal of mine,” he said. “But now that I’m closer to it, it’s becoming a realistic goal and it’s something that’s making me hungrier to get to that.

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“That would be something that would be awesome to win and I’m going to do what I can to try and get there.”

Now that Thompson grew into his 6-foot-6, 220 pound frame, he became even more difficult to defend.

“The skill has always been there, it’s something that’s kind of been natural for me,” said Thompson. “I wasn’t always this tall and I had a big growth spurt and because of that, that time frame I was very awkward and very uncoordinated and had to get used to my body again. Now that I’ve finally finished growing, I’m able to put on some weight and get a little stronger. I’ve been able to piece everything together, whereas in the past I haven’t really been able to piece it all together at once.”

Thompson got an important piece of business done over the summer, inking a seven-year, $50 million deal that kicks in next season.

“It’s very freeing to just go out and play and not have that in the back of your mind kind of hanging over your head. That’s all said and done now and I can just go and play,” said Thompson, who is providing tremendous value in the final year of the three-year, $4.2 million ($1.5 million AAV) contract he inked in 2020. “No matter what you sign for, you always want to be the best version of yourself. Whether I signed for a million or $10 million, it doesn’t matter. I want to be the best player I can be and help the team win.

“When you look at it that way, I don’t think you really feel the pressure of trying to live up to the contract or try to perform to that level. It’s something you want to do regardless of how much you’re making.”

Having a father, Brent, who played in the NHL for 121 games with the Jets and Los Angeles Kings and is now the head coach of the AHL’s Bridgeport Islanders has been an excellent sounding board for Tage.

“I’ve always loved hockey,” Thompson said. “Watching my dad play, from a young age, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. He’s played a huge piece in why I’m here. He’s been a role model of mine growing up my whole life and he’s had such a big impact, giving me insight on the game whenever he watches.

“From a young age all the way up until now, he’s still got things he’s got to say after every game. Sometimes, it’s not things that I want to hear but it’s always beneficial for me. It’s definitely been great having him on my side and having my brother (Tyce, who plays for the AHL’s Utica Devils and suited up in 11 games with the New Jersey Devils) as well. Kind of competing with him growing up has been good for me too. We’re all family. Hockey has been our life and I’m fortunate to make it a living now.”

The Sabres are the highest scoring team in the NHL and you can see the potential they have, once they get a few more things sorted out away from the puck.

“It’s been an exciting year, a lot of ups and downs and that’s helped our team grow as a group – going through those tough stretches,” said Thompson, noting an eight-game losing streak that has Bufallo five points behind the New York Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. “That pulled our group tighter. It helped us learn to fight through adversity and it’s actually helped us to win games as of late, where maybe we were down in the third and we found a way to claw our way back and find a way to get it to overtime and win one.

“It’s been good for us, learning how to find ways to win. We’re a very offensive team, we like to score and it’s been a lot of fun playing. Just continue to try to get better on the defensive side of things and start winning some games.”


There was plenty of reaction surrounding the decision made by Philadelphia Flyers head coach John Tortorella to ban iPads on the bench after expressing concerns that his players were too busy looking at past shifts when they should be preparing for the next one by watching what was happening in front of them.

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Jets head coach Rick Bowness was asked about the decision on Friday prior to a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins and expressed some support.

“I understand where John (Tortorella) is coming from, because it is very frustrating for a coach. You want to get players ready for the next shift,” said Bowness. “They can’t get ready for the next shift when you’re looking at the iPad. As I tell the players in front of me, get ready for the next shift. We’ll deal with this later. Some guys want to look at the power-play or the penalty kill, and I understand that, or a face-off play, I understand that.

“I’ve done it before, where I’ve told the players, ‘You’re not looking at that iPad anymore,’ because it was affecting their play. Some guys can handle it. You watch Pittsburgh play, (Sidney Crosby) is looking at it all of the time. He can handle it. Some guys can’t. It depends on the individual. But again, it’s frustrating. You want to put them back out there and they’re looking at the last shift. I’m not worried about the last shift, I’m worried about the next shift.”

For both of these experienced coaches, this isn’t a pushback against technology, it’s about wanting players to remain engaged in the moment at hand.


• The Seattle Kraken continue to be one of the most impressive stories in the NHL this season. Not only did they become the first team to knock off the Boston Bruins on home ice on Thursday, they completed a clean sweep of a seven-game road trip and have won eight consecutive games overall. That moved the Kraken to 26-12-4 overall and has them right in the thick of things in the battle for top spot in the Pacific Division with the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings. Centre Jared McCann notched the first hat trick in his NHL career in the 466th regular season game on Saturday in an 8-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

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• The Kraken have turned out to be an ideal landing spot for forward Eeli Tolvanen. Since being claimed off waivers on Dec. 12 from the Nashville Predators, the 30th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft has chipped in five goals and seven points in eight games while averaging 13:41 of ice time. Tolvanen, who has been skating alongside Yanni Gourde and Oliver Bjorkstrand, had 25 goals and 51 points in 135 games with Nashville. It’s important to note Tolvanen is rocking a shooting percentage of 29.4 since joining his new team (well above his career average of 11.7 per cent), but credit to the player for making an immediate impression after a tough start to this season.

• Kings goalie Pheonix Copley has done a solid job since the organization made the decision to waive Cal Petersen and recall Copley from the Ontario Reign of the AHL. The 30-year-old journeyman from North Pole, Alaska, has put together a 12-2 record with a 2.59 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. Petersen seems to be finding his way in the minors, posting a 2.58 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 12 games in the AHL.

• The Colorado Avalanche remain six points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference while holding four games in hand, but they delivered a lopsided 7-0 victory over the Ottawa Senators that they’ll hope to build on. Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen scored his 28th and 29th goals in the contest and one of the many impressive things about his season is that he’s up to 24 goals at even strength, which leaves him in top spot in that category.

• Blue Jackets winger Patrik Laine notched his 10th career hat trick, becoming the 17th player in NHL history to hit double-digits in hat tricks before their 25th birthday. As a point of comparison, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin had nine hat tricks before he was 25 but is now up to 31 for his career. Laine is up to 12 goals and 22 points in 27 games this season and is quickly approaching the 200-goal mark as he’s up to 188 in 434 games.

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