Tage Thompson could do something that has never been done in NHL history


Tage Thompson is that create-a-player gamers would dream about only to discover their fantasy became a real-life NHL forward. He is that person who in a single discussion can make skills coaches go from sounding like trained professionals to full-on fans in a matter of minutes. Words such as “flawless” and “perfect” are used to describe him while one of those coaches says, “He was built into being a hockey player.”

What he can do with a puck leads Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy to gladly declare he is “a unicorn,” makes Anaheim Ducks forward Troy Terry wax about how he is such a testament to patience, and prompts Tampa Bay Lightning prospect forward Jack Finley to be among the many who say that he has a chance to change the narrative for future generations.

All of this is to say there is already a mythos around Thompson. He is spoken about in these hyperbolic ways that are typically reserved for urban legends. The difference between Thompson and urban legends is that the Buffalo Sabres forward is fact — whereas the other is fiction. It’s just that Thompson’s exploits feel like fiction because of how everyone else gushes over them.

People act as if they have never seen anyone quite like Thompson before. And they’re right.

The 25-year-old center is on pace to finish with 50 goals and 103 points, which would give him one of the greatest individual seasons in Sabres history. But there is an underlying context that adds to what Thompson is doing — and could potentially achieve — this season.

At 6-foot-7, Thompson has a chance to make NHL history by becoming the tallest player to ever score 50 goals and/or finish with 100 points in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Through March 20, Thompson scored 42 goals and 87 points through 69 games, which already makes him the tallest player to ever score 40 goals and record 80 points in a season.

Prior to Thompson, former Chicago Blackhawks forward Eric Daze held the distinction of being the tallest player in NHL history with the most points in a season. Daze, who is 6-6, scored 38 goals and 70 points in 80 games during the 2001-02 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Six feet, 7 inches tall. Think about that. Picture someone putting DeForest Buckner, Luka Doncic or Aaron Judge — all of whom are 6-7 — on skates.

“It’s surprising, to be honest with you,” retired NHL forward Jason Arnott said upon hearing that Thompson could be the tallest to notch a 50-100 season. “There have been some really good players that were tall. It’s amazing. Especially with the speed of the game. Kudos to him and for being such a great skater at that size. That’s crazy.”

What is it about Thompson that has allowed him to be in a position to achieve things that have never been done before? Especially in a league in which front offices value size with the caveat that too much size could plausibly present too many challenges?

“My dad is a scout, and growing up, I was always sitting in on conversations with him and other scouts,” said Finley, the Lightning prospect, who is 6-6. “He told me when he would watch a game, his first reaction would be to see if there was a big player that he could watch. If there was a big guy who even had some skill, he was automatically drawn to him. That is the way it has been for years.”

PERHAPS THE STARTING point for any conversation about Thompson’s place within the game is with the context of those who came before him. There have been several players between 6-2 and 6-4 who were among the most prolific forwards to ever play the game.

Many of them also had longevity. There have been 159 forwards with a listed height of 6-4 who have played in the NHL, according to league records. It’s a list that includes Hall of Fame inductees such as Dave Andreychuk, Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros, with Joe Thornton possibly next. Then there’s this current generation of players such as Mikko Rantanen and Brady Tkachuk.

Fifteen of them have scored more than 500 career points, while another 39 have played more than 500 games.

Compare that to the 104 forwards all time who were 6-5 or taller. The shortest members include players such as Patrik Laine, Keith Primeau, Mats Sundin and Blake Wheeler, with the tallest being John Scott, who is 6-8. Only six of those players have scored more than 500 points and all of them were 6-5. In terms of games played, there are 21 who have played more than 500 games, with five of those forwards being taller than 6-6.

Sundin is the only forward who is at least 6-5 to score 1,000 points. He’s one of three forwards that height — along with Arnott and Wheeler — to score more than 900 points.

What is it about that extra inch that makes all the difference? Why have 6-4 forwards been so much more prolific and had longer careers?

The answers vary — though many admit there might not be a perfect explanation.

“There are not as many guys at 6-5 because it’s tall for a hockey player,” Primeau said. “I always felt a little too long. It was hard to defend against smaller guys in the corner, quicker guys in the end zones. I just felt 6-3 could move quickly because those 2 inches made a huge difference.”

“Once you get to those players who are 6-5, 6-6 and 6-7, even though it seems like such a small difference, the effect on the players is different,” Finley said. “The skating, the coordination. When a scout watches a player, the chances of a 6-6 forward being good in the NHL are slim. For a guy who is 6-5, 6-6 and 6-7, there are guys who are 6-4 and they can do things I can’t because of the way their body is built.”

Said Tara McKay, a power skating coach for Gary Roberts High Performance Training: “Is it because they’re out of hockey early because they cannot play at the pace? Hockey is a sport in which they identify guys so early. … A lot of the successful players now are these strong little tank guys. You cannot really be 6-5, strong and 18 [years old]. I have not seen one look like that with a hockey build at 18.”

SO HOW DOES one explain Thompson? What is it exactly that Thompson is doing that could see him become only the third player 6-5 or taller to score 100 points in a season? (Pete Mahvolich had two 100-point seasons in his career; Sundin had one.)

Here’s the thing about power skating and skills coaches. They live for nuance. And between McKay and Kyle Nishizaki, they can touch on a number of items that they believe have allowed Thompson to be in this position.

Nishizaki is the director of Perfect Skating, a program founded by Colorado Avalanche skills coach Shawn Allard that has worked with hundreds of NHL players.

“First thing is, he’s got pretty good ankle mobility and can get his knee in front of his toe, and that puts him in the right spot with his skate blade,” Nishizaki said. “He’s blessed with long limbs and levers, and is able to produce a lot of force in every push with his length along with being a big, strong guy as well. Those are two things right off the hop that will help him and allow him to be a pretty decent mover for somebody of that size.”

Another point Nishizaki raised about Thompson was how his skating works within the context of being a forward versus a defenseman. Nishizaki said defensemen skate, but there are times when they are able to conserve energy. Forwards, however, can’t conserve energy, because if they do, then there is a chance a mistake is going in the back of the net.

That’s one more detail that could get lost about Thompson. It’s not just the skating — it’s that he never stops moving, and it’s one of the reasons he consistently appears to be in a position to score no matter where he’s at on the ice.

McKay said Thompson’s skating is “pretty flawless,” while noting she cannot believe how strong of a skater he is at that height. She said Thompson has all the traits commonly associated with a player with his length such as a big shot, reach, size and strength. Yet what commonly hurts taller players is the fact they are not the strongest skaters, she said.

She said all skaters, especially tall ones, need to have strong core stability. McKay referenced the work he did with one of her clients, Los Angeles Kings prospect center Quinton Byfield, who is 6-5. In Byfield’s draft year, they worked together to fix his skating and concentrate on his posture.

Some younger skaters with size like Byfield struggle with details such as being bent over in their stance. Or they have a stride that is a bit too long. McKay said those bigger and taller skaters can get away with it at the junior level because they have an advantage over their competition.

But when they turn pro, they’re going against older and stronger competitors who are far more technically sound. McKay said that instability means it’s easier for those bigger skaters to lose the puck, which is something they worked with Byfield on.

McKay said Thompson’s skating has the right amount of length in his stride and he is not bent over. Furthermore, she said Thompson has “excellent agility,” which benefits him in a number of ways throughout the course of a game.

“I find it amazing. I don’t know his backstory,” McKay said. “But something that came to my mind was: ‘How did they build this guy into being able to do this?'”

MANY TALLER PLAYERS either grow up being bigger than their peers from the beginning, or they go through a sudden growth spurt that changes everything — particularly the expectations about what they could accomplish with their newfound height.

Seattle Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who is 6-7, said he was always the tallest kid on his team at 6-2, but he grew another 5 inches when he was around 17. New York Islanders forward Pierre Engvall, who is 6-5, said he grew from being the shortest person in his class to almost being the tallest in one summer. Primeau said he was 5-10 and skinny when he was a teenager, but he grew to being 6-3 within six months before ultimately playing at 6-5 in his career.

Being that tall usually means those players either get moved to defense or goaltending, or they started out there. Alternatively, it means they have to play as a big, bruising power forward who makes size their No. 1 attribute.

Initially, Brent Thompson had the older of his two sons, Tage, play as a defenseman. It makes sense given Brent was a defenseman who played more than 100 games in the NHL while spending most of his professional career in the AHL.

“As a child, I tried to convince him to play defense, and actually, he had one game where he played goalie,” Brent said. “The only shot he faced went in, and that was a quick denial on the goaltending side. He liked having the puck on his stick. I tried to convince him, but it didn’t fit.”

Brent said Tage was an undersized player for most of his life. Or rather, it was that way until he was 16 or 17 when he started to grow, with Brent saying his oldest son was still growing as of last season.

The Ducks’ Terry played one season with Thompson when they were teammates at the United States National Team Development Program, USA Hockey’s program to develop what it considers to be the best U-17 and U-18 talents in the nation. Terry saw the start of that growth firsthand.

“I think when I played with him, he had just grown within the last year. It was like a crazy amount,” Terry said. “Like, 7 or 8 inches. He was pretty lanky, and when you were on the ice with him, you could tell his skill and his hands were great. You could just tell, and he would know better than me, but it was like his body hadn’t caught up yet or his mind hadn’t caught up yet. All of his hockey ability was there — you just knew he was going to be a stud. He just needed to figure out how to play at 6-foot-7 as opposed to being 6 feet because he grew that much.”

Said McAvoy, who also was part of the NTDP at that time: “Tommer is a unicorn, and I knew right away, we all did, that he was really special. He had unbelievable hands for his size, shots and you could see he had it when he was 17. He just took a while. He was a late bloomer. … on our U-18 team, he was our fifth-line guy.”

Uh, sorry, Charlie. Did you just say that a future first-round draft pick who is on pace for a 50-goal, 100-point season was on the fifth line?

“I know, it’s funny because it’s like, ‘Holy cow, this guy’s literally one of the best players in the NHL,'” McAvoy smiled. “He probably played five minutes at the [U-18 World Junior Championships] combined. He just took it like a champ and was a valuable part of the team.”

For those wondering who else was on the NTDP roster at the same time as Thompson? Try Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, Florida Panthers duo Matthew Tkachuk and Colin White, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Jack Roslovic, Arizona Coyotes forward Christian Fischer, Sabres forward Jordan Greenway, San Jose Sharks forward Luke Kunin and Terry.

And that’s not even including cameos from Coyotes winger Clayton Keller, who was a year younger but was called up to the U-18s, or even Kraken winger Ryan Donato, who had a four-game run.

Brent said his son might have been 6 feet when he arrived at the NTDP to play one season before going to college. Tage Thompson played two seasons at the University of Connecticut. UConn’s media guide from Thompson’s freshman year listed him at 6-4, and it stated he was 6-5 as a sophomore.

Even now, his height varies depending upon the source. Some websites list him at 6-6; whereas others have him at 6-7.

“To hear his last height, I heard it was 6-6, but he also grew a little more,” Brent said.

SO THAT EXPLAINS the height. What about Thompson’s skill?

Being the son of a former professional hockey player who is also the head coach of the Islanders’ AHL affiliate meant Thompson received a different level of tutelage. Brent said his son was always “a high-level skill” player growing up.

Where Thompson excelled was with his hands, his release and his shot — attributes that continue to serve him to this day. But those skills were developed because he was at one point a small player who did not have the advantage of using his size to beat people. So that meant he had to use skills to create and find space while also using them to score goals.

“I am thinking that was youth hockey from 12 to 15 when you would see him beat a guy once and toe drag him again,” Brent said. “Was it frustrating? Yeah, from a coaching standpoint. From a parent standpoint, it was impressive to see how he developed. … Hockey is something he loved and it was nice to see how he loved it.”

There are stories from Tage Thompson’s youngest years that add to the mythos.

Brent imagines his son was around toddler age when he started taking a miniature stick with him at every turn. There was a night at dinner when Thompson took a butter knife and began stickhandling a Cheerio with the knife like it was a hockey stick at the dinner table.

From there, the cute acts of a child turned into an obsession. When he was old enough, the routine was as follows: Wake up. Go to school. Come home and do homework. Then, shoot pucks or work on stickhandling until it’s either time to eat or it’s time to go to bed.

Brent said the foundation for both of his sons were the countless days they spent poring over the technical details of balance and skating. They worked on balance position, power skating, stride extension and edgework.

“I didn’t let them handle a puck,” Brent recalled. “They had a whole routine at practice or it was in our night sessions. … That built the foundation from there to work on their hands, stickhandling drills, passing drills, shooting drills. We would do a routine and we built on that to talk about the different ways to get the puck off the stick quickly. But the progress and ability to do it progressed each year.”

Brent was only part of that development. Thompson and his brother, Tyce, who plays in the New Jersey Devils‘ organization, also learned from Eric Boguniecki, who was an assistant with Brent in the AHL in Bridgeport along with Islanders skills coach Bernie Cassell.

Yes, Tage Thompson had the natural ability, drive and skills that eventually joined forces with a 6-7 physique that has made him a star. But how did Brent know that the skills he was teaching his sons would be the ones that would have a future place in the NHL?

“We all realized it early and saw the level of skill,” Brent said. “I think to play in today’s game, you have to be able to skate. That was the biggest thing in my brain. You need to be able to skate, control a puck and make a play. Those were things we worked on growing up.”

ASKING NHL PLAYERS about Tage Thompson generates a lot of opinions about what he’s doing and what makes him so unique.

For example, what’s the difference between when McAvoy played against him in practice at the NTDP versus now in the NHL?

“Well, he’s even more dynamic now than he was then!” McAvoy said. “His hands are better now, his shot is better now. Everything is better now. When guys are that long, it’s their reach. They don’t need more space to get [a shot] off because that puck is so far out.”

Or what is it like to be a fellow 6-7 NHL player and see what Thompson is doing?

“Every goal he scores is like a highlight-reel goal,” Oleksiak said with a big grin. “It’s tempting. I watch him and I go, ‘Why can’t I do stuff like that?’ But I think it’s for the best that I don’t try to overdo it.”

What are some of the aspects that make Thompson so difficult to deal with?

“He has an unbelievable ability to toe drag the puck and drag it into his body and releases it from different angles,” Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Giordano said. “His shot, he can get it off from everywhere. But his shot is extremely heavy, too. I think it’s because he’s so big and uses all that whip in his stick.”

And how is it to take on a player like Thompson as a defensive assignment versus someone who has more conventional size?

“There is a difference as far as they have that reach,” Bruins center and five-time Selke Award winner Patrice Bergeron said. “They can protect that puck, and it is harder to get on the inside of them. I think you gotta make sure you keep them to the outside as possible and make sure you have good sticks. Stickwork is the most important part for me against guys like that. They want to make plays and have good speed too.”

Better yet: What’s it like to know someone as big and tall as Thompson has the sort of skill that the game has seen from other young players like — for example — Ducks forward Trevor Zegras?

“It’s funny. Tage is from around where I’m from and where I grew up in Bedford, New York,” Zegras said. “He lived in Bridgeport where his dad coached. I’ve been on the ice with him a couple times throughout the years. … That team in Buffalo is really fast and really skilled, and I feel like he’s kind of the leader of that offense. It’s cool to see and I am definitely not surprised in the slightest to see it.”

Even though Finley is not in the NHL yet, he suggested that Thompson’s success opens the door for bigger players. While Finley admitted he is not that type of player, he has learned a lot from watching Thompson when it comes to how he can protect the puck, as well as being patient, whenever he is on the puck.

“I wish he was around 10 years earlier and I could have modeled my game after him,” Finley said.

Primeau said the game’s contemporary nature means that players — regardless of their height — have all made skill a priority. He said the days of the mixed emotions of seeing a 6-7 player score a goal but not get into a fight are over.

Arnott noted how that shift toward a more skill-based game means bigger players have a better chance to not be pigeonholed as power forwards.

“Everyone looks at hockey as this big, strong physical game,” Arnott said. “When you are a bigger guy, you are looked upon to throw around your weight and use your big body to crash and bang. But you also have to be able to skate. If you can’t skate, then I don’t think it matters how big you are.”

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