Tage Thompson has scored 15 goals this season. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres star Tage Thompson confident despite low offensive output

BUFFALO – This is nothing new for Tage Thompson. The Sabres center has battled adversity – a trade, demotion, unmet expectations and more – throughout his career.

Each experience shaped Thompson, 26, and last season, his fifth here, he developed into one of the NHL’s elite talents, scoring 47 goals and 94 points as the Sabres contended for a playoff spot.

This season, the first of his seven-year, $50 million contract, has often been rough.

He got off to a slow start, mustering just one point in the first six games. He missed nine contests after breaking his hand in November. When he returned, a brace he wore clearly hampered him.

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Thompson has endured an underwhelming campaign, compiling 15 goals and 29 points in 40 games. The Sabres, meanwhile, rank near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

“It’s something I’m used to,” Thompson said of adversity following Thursday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “It’s just another year of challenges.”

A year ago on this date, he had 34 goals in 55 games, a 51-goal clip over a full season. This year, he’s on pace for 27 goals and 52 points.

“I feel like I’m playing good hockey,” Thompson said. “The goals aren’t going in at the rate I would like them to, but playing good hockey, getting good chances. Just haven’t found the back of the net as much as I’d like to.”

Thompson found it in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, ending a seven-game goal drought by blasting a one-timer from the left circle. It was just his fourth power-play tally this season.

Opponents have regularly neutralized that one-timer, and Thompson, who scored 20 power-play goals last year, and the Sabres have struggled on the man advantage.

Whatever the situation, Sabres coach Don Granato wants Thompson to utilize his lethal shot more often.

“When you see him shooting more, you know he believes he can score more,” he said.

Thompson pumped six shots on goal and attempted nine Tuesday. It marked the fifth time this season he has registered at least six.

He has recorded 135 shots (3.4 per game) this season and attempted 263 (6.6 per game). He had 295 shots last year (3.8 per game) and 542 attempts (6.9 per game).

“When I have a shot-first mentality, things start to open up for me,” said Thompson, who knows he must also keep his feet moving and be physical to be at his best.

Thompson’s new linemate, captain Kyle Okposo, can help strengthen that mentality. He plays a heavy, straight-line game that can make Thompson and left wing Jeff Skinner display a more direct style.

“He goes to the net, so I know where he’s going to be, and for me, I just try to simplify my game, put the puck to the net and put it deep,” Thompson said.

Granato believes Okposo’s ability to battle and make a beeline to the net can create a little extra space.

“It’s, ‘We’re going to the net. We’re not going east-west,’” he said. “Okposo drives that net quicker, faster, harder, so your attention has to go there, and that’s, obviously, going to help Tage score more goals.”

Okposo has occasionally played with Thompson over the years, including when he had a brilliant three-goal, six-point performance Oct. 31, 2022.

The veteran understands how dynamically Thompson can be at his best.

“It’s so hard to take the puck from him,” said Okposo, who joined Thompson and Skinner during the Sabres’ road trip late last month. “When he gets guys on his back, it’s fun to watch. His confidence grows and then he starts to do things instinctively instead of just trying to beat guys. When he’s skating and he’s moving and he’s putting guys on his back, then he beats guys just naturally.”

Okposo said Thompson is “going to keep getting better.”

“He dealt with an injury earlier this year and it hasn’t been as fluid as it was for him last year,” he said. “But he’s working and he’s putting his head down and he’s kind of getting through it. He’s going to come out the other side better than he’s ever been.”

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