Sabres centre Tage Thompson among NHL's breakout stars in 2022-23
Tage Thompson has received tons of attention this season.
It's not hard to see why.
The rangy centre's breakout performance for the Buffalo Sabres includes new high-water marks on the stats sheet accented by breathtaking individual offensive moments.
But for all the accolades now, his head coach wishes the long, arduous process that brought Thompson to this point had been documented start to finish.
"His will and strength and determination in the end result," Don Granato said of what strikes him about the player's journey. "He wasn't going to get the results immediately. We're in a results-oriented world for everybody.
"It's usually, 'I want it now.'"
It wasn't coming quickly for the lanky forward.
Part of Buffalo's return from the trade that sent Ryan O'Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in 2018, Thompson was on the fourth line in 2014-15 when Granato coached a U.S. National Team Development Program squad led by Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk and Charlie McAvoy.
And he was in the minors when Granato joined Ralph Krueger's staff as an assistant with the Sabres in 2019-20.
"Everybody wants to do video and stories on him now," Granato said of Thompson. "I wish for the sake of kids that go through these challenges, they would have had a camera on him about five, six years ago."
Granato replaced Krueger as Sabres head coach in March 2021 and started to give the six-foot-six, 220-pound Thompson more opportunity — specifically moving him from the wing to centre, and further up the lineup.
He registered 68 points in 78 games in his first full NHL season before raising the bar with 44 goals — he scored five times one memorable December night — and 45 assists in 72 appearances so far in 2022-23.
"The way our team plays, it just fits my style of game and allows me to use my skill and creativity," the 25-year-old said recently. "A lot of that just comes from (Granato) ... giving you that free rein."
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was in the American Hockey League when Thompson was part of the Sabres' farm system.
"I remember chuckling watching some of the clips of him at the AHL level," Keefe said. "You're not used to seeing guys shoot pucks like that.
"The skill set and co-ordination for a guy his size, it seems the older he's got, it's all come together."
Buffalo linemate Jeff Skinner said Thompson's rise — whether it's pinging one-timers on the power play or one of his silky smooth sequences off the rush — has been fun to watch up close.
"If people would have predicted this, they probably would have a different job," Skinner said. "It's a credit to him. He's put in the work and he's continuing to improve.
"Still hungry, still gonna push."
When his contemporaries were excelling in the NHL and he was still finding his way, the Phoenix product maintained faith in his hard work.
"Wherever that took me, I'd be grateful," said Thompson, the 26th pick at the 2016 draft. "Figure out what that ceiling is."
His path to the spotlight is also a lesson.
"Everyone develops at different times," Thompson said. "It took me a little longer to fill out in my body and just get comfortable with my game. Some guys get to it a little earlier and some guys need a little more time.
"You combine that with opportunity and you get what you've got."
His coach — both as a teenager and now in the pros — had belief Thompson would eventually get there.
"He had delayed results," Granato said. "He was very dialled in, confident that he could get to the level he's at now.
"To watch him behind the scenes work for that every day was something that gave you a confidence as a coach that he's going to be able to do it."
The Canadian Press takes a look at some of the NHL's other top breakout performers this season:
The No. 1 pick at the 2019 draft by the New Jersey Devils had trouble staying healthy as he navigated the NHL as a youngster, but has found his groove in 2022-23. The 21-year-old is up to 40 goals and 86 points — 30 better than his previous high — in 70 contests.
The Bruins goaltender put up solid numbers on some bad Buffalo teams before joining Boston last season. The 29-year-old runaway Vezina Trophy favourite as the league's top netminder is a jaw-dropping 36-6-1 with a .937 save percentage and a 1.90 goals-against average for the first-place Bruins.
Selected third overall by the Ottawa Senators at the 2020 draft, the 21-year-old has 36 goals and 82 points in 70 contests in his third NHL campaign. Stutzle combined to register 34 goals and 87 points in 132 games over his first two seasons.
Considered a solid, dependable defenceman before the puck dropped in October, Morrissey sits second in scoring on the Winnipeg Jets with 69 points from 73 games. The 28-year-old's previous high was the 37 he registered in 2021-22.
The Dallas Stars winger has taken his game up another notch with 41 goals and 91 points in 74 games. That comes on the heels of the 23-year-old's 79-point performance last season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press