Tage Thompson’s production dipped this season. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

By end of difficult season, Sabres’ Tage Thompson became elite scorer again

BUFFALO – By the end of a trying season, Sabres center Tage Thompson recaptured the slick form that made him one of the NHL’s elite scorers last year.

To wit: in his final 28 games, he recorded 14 goals and 27 points. He often performed dynamically over his last 18 outings, scoring 11 goals and 21 points.

That’s a torrid 50-goal, 95-point pace over 82 games, very close his 47-goal, 94-point campaign in 2022-23.

But Thompson, having broken his left hand blocking a shot Nov. 14, did not play a full season. While he returned Dec. 5 following a nine-game absence, the injury hampered him. It took him two months to start consistently producing offense.

In one contest, a scintillating four-goal effort March 29, he scored as many goals as he did over a 19-game stretch from Jan. 6 to Feb. 25.

“Maybe I jumped back a little too early when I wasn’t ready,” Thompson said April 17 as the Sabres held end-of-season meetings in KeyBank Center following their 12th-place finish in the Eastern Conference. “I knew it was going to take me a little bit to get back to myself. It’s unfortunate that it happened and I would have liked to get to my game a lot quicker than that. But, yeah, I think (the injury) is a contributing factor.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Thompson doesn’t want to use his injury as an excuse. Even before it, he started the season slowly, mustering just one point, a goal, in the first six games.

In the same breath as he explained how he wasn’t his normal self following the injury, he talked about finding “a way to impact the game if pucks aren’t going in.”

“For me, that’s being physical, being good defensively,” said Thompson, who compiled 29 goals and 56 points in 71 games this season. “There’s plenty of ways that I can contribute.”

Thompson spoke strongly after a disappointing season in which the Sabres missed the playoffs and coach Don Granato was fired. He understands many of their problems can be traced to core players like himself simply not being good enough.

Accountability became a big theme following Granato’s dismissal, and Thompson knows the Sabres need more of it, especially among players.

“We have a really tight locker room,” he said. “Guys that are very close with each other. Bonds that are very, very tight. And I think that’s pretty special. That’s not something that a lot of teams can say. But at the same time, when you have those bonds, you don’t want to upset or ruffle any feathers.

“And I think we need to be OK with calling guys out. … It’s coming from a place of love and that underlying belief that you know they have better, and you just want to see the team succeed and you want better from them and better for them. And I think everyone in here understands that.”

The Sabres, having traded veteran winger Kyle Okposo, need a new captain and likely at least one alternate. Thompson, 26, could be a strong candidate to wear a letter next season.

It’s unclear how new coach Lindy Ruff wants his leadership group to look. Ruff will be Thompson’s fourth coach since he joined the Sabres in 2017.

After being used in a secondary role by Phil Housley and Ralph Krueger, Thompson quickly developed into a lethal scorer under Granato, who also coached him in junior.

When Granato shifted Thompson from right wing to center shortly before the 2021-22 season, his career took off. He has scored 114 goals over the last three seasons, the NHL’s 14th-highest total.

“The biggest thing was him just believing in me, giving me opportunity,” Thompson said. “I think prior to that, I hadn’t really gotten an opportunity to be put in a situation to score or produce. And I think he knew that was something that I had in me and had seen it before and knew that I could do it at this level. And he gave me every opportunity to make sure it happened.”

When Thompson spoke, the Sabres hadn’t hired Ruff. Thompson’s brother, Tyce, played 11 games under Ruff with the New Jersey Devils.

During Ruff’s first stint with the Sabres, centers Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, his co-captains, enjoyed career seasons, so there’s a history of getting the most out of talent.

Even with a new coach, Thompson believes the confidence Granato instilled in himself and the group will last.

“There’s a lot of young guys in here, a lot of skill, and guys that have grown their game since he’s been here,” he said of Granato. “And I think that’s a big reason because of the way that we played. I think we’re at a point now where that confidence isn’t an issue. I think everyone in here believes in themselves and knows what they’re capable of and where they can get to in their career.

“I think now that you have that belief and that internal awareness of your game, I think now there is that accountability factor that you need to have something tangible you can point to and say, ‘Hey, you weren’t doing this.’ And there needs to be discipline if you’re not. And I think that’s something hopefully that we’ll have moving forward.”

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