BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — It was only fitting Tage Thompson got to celebrate the NHL’s most productive goal-scoring outing of the season with Don Granato, who was busy pulling one puck after another out of his pockets before the Sabres coach stopped at five in the visitor’s locker room in Columbus.
If not for the faith Granato placed in Thompson a year ago by shifting him from a secondary winger role to centering one of Buffalo’s top lines, the Sabres could well have missed out on having one of the league’s most unique and dynamic scoring threats.
“Someone asked me last night if I’m surprised,” Granato said Thursday, a day after a 9-4 win at Columbus in which Thompson became just the 12th player since 1992-93 to score five times in a game. “No, I’m not surprised at all. He’s very talented and puts the work in.”
This was the type of potential Granato saw when coaching a 17-year-old Thompson with USA Hockey’s developmental program in 2014-15. And deeper pockets might be in order when it comes to a 6-foot-6 player finding his stride.
In less than two seasons, Thompson has gone from being an oversized afterthought who battled injuries and lack of playing time under Buffalo’s previous coach, Ralph Krueger, to becoming a breakout star on a team built around youth and speed.
Thompson’s first four goals were scored in a first-period span of 11:08, helping Buffalo build a 6-0 lead. He then scored at the 16:07 mark of the second period to make it 7-3.
The 25-year-old Thompson became the second U.S.-born player to score five times in one outing. Overall, he’s the NHL’s fourth player to score four times in the first period, and sixth to do so in any period of a game.
“No, I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary,” Thompson said of matching the Sabres single-game record for goals set by Dave Andreychuk in 1986. “I was hungry for more.”
Thompson added an assist for his second six-point game of the season to move into third in the NHL with 21 goals and fourth with 40 points through games on Wednesday.
To put Thompson’s meteoric rise into context, he’s gone from scoring 18 goals and 35 points in his first 145 career games, including his rookie season in St. Louis, to totaling 59 goals and 108 points in his past 104.
In doing so, Thompson has overcome the stigma of being labeled a bust in Buffalo after being acquired in a trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis in 2019. And his hot start to this season blunts those who questioned the Sabres for signing Thompson to a seven-year, $50 million contract in August based on one season of production in which he had a team-leading 38 goals.
“Obviously, that’s a big leap of faith. There’s always that risk. But I think you just focus on putting in the work and not being satisfied,” Thompson said of a contract that doesn’t kick in until next season. “I think everyone in here believed in me. And when I signed that deal, I think players knew I was going to work to live up to that deal.”
Thompson’s work ethic was never in question, though he did require extra time to grow into a body that is anything but prototypical for an NHL forward.
Most players his size wind up on the blue line or in net. Among current NHL rosters, only six players are listed at 6-foot-7 or taller, with five of them defenseman. The only exception is Detroit rookie left wing Elmer Soderblom, who is listed at 6-8.
What separates Thompson from most players his size is a nimble ability to maintain control while stick-handling in tight spaces. Aside from having a hard shot, he’s also able to create while driving to the net.
“I remember we always did this one-on-one drill where you try to keep the puck away from each other, and he always dominated,” Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said. “As soon as he got trust from the coaches and opportunities, he exploded. So I felt like he was kind of a ticking bomb.”
The opportunity finally came when Krueger was fired in March 2021, and replaced by Granato.
“I saw a guy that was doing all the things and just needed an opportunity,” Granato said. “To know and watch how many hours and obstacles Tage Thompson had to put in and overcome made it really special to be handing (the pucks) to him.”
Thompson was born in Arizona and grew up around hockey, with his father Brent a journeyman NHL player who has since gone into coaching and is now in his 10th year with the AHL team in Bridgeport.
The two exchanged texts following the game at Columbus.
“He’s quick to congratulate me, but also remind me there’s a lot more you can do, and tomorrow’s a new day,” Thompson said. “You don’t want to get carried away. That’s kind of what leads to complacency. And when that happens, that’s the downfall of your game.”
His father’s advice is why Thompson never let himself get frustrated during his first two seasons in Buffalo.
“I don’t think there was ever really a point where I had self-doubt. I always knew what I was capable of and I always believed in myself,” Thompson said. “Obviously, Donny’s a big factor in that he gave me a big opportunity to showcase that I can do it.”