Breaking Tage Thompson, 38 goals after officially moving to center, earned the 24-year-old a place in the Buffalo Sabers long-range plan.
The club announced on Tuesday that it had agreed the terms of a seven-year, $50 million contract with Thompson, keeping the striker 6-foot-7 until the 2029-30 season. The deal, commencing in 2023-24, carries an average annual value of $7.142 million, the second highest for the team by Thompson’s teammate, Jeff Skinner.
Thompson ensures no restricted free agency in the summer of 2023 and rewards him for leading the Sabers in goals and points (68) while his career average of 17:53 of ice time across 78 games. Cypress’s top streak focused after moving to center in training camp and his 24 goals after February 1 were tied for fifth in the NHL.
Thompson’s right-handed shot, creation of top-line play and constant defensive play in the middle of the ice helped Cypress to collect the most 13 points in the league over the final two months of the season.
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The contract could be a bargain for the Sabers, who are betting Thompson will repeat and build on it last season. And while there is always the risk of pushing forward with a limited production track record, the deal could be below market value for a young position who has already proven capable of scoring more than 35 goals.
“This is a place I’ve been wanting to be for a very long time,” Thompson, who was eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2024, told reporters in May. “I want to be a guy who helps this team win, make the playoffs, win the Stanley Cup, and those are obviously all just words and you have to put that into action.
“I’m excited to be a guy like Buffalo Saber, and I think we have a lot of guys in the room who feel the same about our team as I do.
Across Thompson’s first 145 NHL games between 2017-21, he scored 18 goals and just 35 points while learning how to gain time and space with the puck as a winger. Everything changed for Thompson and Sabers with a phone call last summer.
Thompson in Arizona was preparing for his first training camp under Granato when the Cypress coach called. At the time, Thompson was determined to prove he belonged in the NHL. Acquiring former general manager Jason Putrell in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, Thompson often represented a healthy scratcher under former coach Ralph Krueger, and like current Cypresses Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Asplund, ended up on the cab team during the abbreviated 2020-21 season.
Thompson’s talent always shined through in practice, as she did during his outings with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, and in the back, when he played under Granato in the US Hockey Team Development Program. It has not been translated into NHL games yet.
Granato predicted that with opportunity and confidence, Thompson had the potential to be dynamic. The decision to move him to the center changed the short and long-term outlook for Saber. In addition to scoring goals, he has proven that he can be the first-line playmaker the club needs. His most-repeated teammate, Skinner, scored 33 goals, his highest production since 2018-19.
“Tomer was the guy we saw every day in practice,” said Cypress winger Kyle Okposo. “Every day in practice, it was like, ‘This guy is incredible. He’s the best player on the ice.” And for whatever reason in the games, like, he didn’t have confidence, or he just wasn’t translating.
“And now, you see him as we’ve seen him for years. And the way he makes the moves, he protects the disc, his ability to make his buddies even better – that’s something, if you’re (central) like he was this year, that’s a huge component of him. And he’s made his buddies even better this year.” “.
By phone, Granato relayed the news. Thompson was moving into center, a position he played before he was drafted by the St. Louis Blues with the No. 26 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Quietly, Thompson went to work and arrived at a training camp where all the outside talk was about who wasn’t there: Former Cypress captain, Jack Eichel.
Mittelstadt was the star of camp, capturing the midfield role at the top line while delivering the most consistent performance in training and pre-season games. However, Thompson showed instant flashes in the center with his speed down the middle of the ice. In the center, he was finding time and space in the attack area which was difficult to reach when he was confined to the flank.
And when Mittelstadt was sidelined with an injury early in the season, Thompson took the fight to the center of the top line and never looked back. He made his debut in November with 12 points in 14 matches. Production continued, even though the Sabers endured the Covid-19 outbreak that left their roster short.
Thompson became a legitimate All-Star candidate and his production during the first half of the season earned him a place on the league’s last men’s ballot for the Atlantic Division. He was not selected but his play continued through the second half.
Over the last 38 games of the season, Thompson has scored 24 goals and 39 points while averaging 18:06 of icy time. With 40 goals per season, Thompson would have become only the fourth position in franchise history to reach the goal. The others: Gilbert Perrault, Pat Lafontaine, and Pierre Turgeon.
Thompson’s rise, along with the development of other young players on the roster, has revived a fan base tired of waiting for success. It also helped validate Adams’ plan to build around a new core built around Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin, among others.
The outlook for the Sabers at the center has changed significantly since Sam Reinhart traded to Florida in July 2021 and Eichel left for Vegas a few months later. In addition to having Thompson under a long-term contract, Sabers has significant site depth at Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs. The club used all three of its first-round picks in July on dynamic, skilled central attackers: Matthew Savoy, Noah Ostlund and Jerry Kulic.
“When you don’t have enough quarterback, it’s tough in this league,” Adams told the Buffalo News in March. “Tage’s appearance playing in the middle, it was phenomenal. …And I told Donnie over and over I wanted to be in a position where we have a problem that we have so many good positions that a few of them have to go to the wing. That’s great.
“It’s tough in this league as a young center, and it was really nice to see the growth of these players.”
Here’s Taj Thompson’s 24 5v5 goal in 2021-22.#LetsGoBuffalo pic.twitter.com/x6CfBGvndT
– JFresh (@JFreshHockey) August 30 2022