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Big Deal for Big Tage Thompson

August 30, 2022, 7:53 PM ET [731 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Tage Thompson owes Don Granato a steak dinner.

The Sabres announced Tuesday night that the 26th overall pick from 2016 has inked a brand-new 7-year, $50m deal with the blue and gold which will kick in following the 2022-23 season, a season in which the Arizona native will count $1.4m against the cap. After this year, Thompson will cost $7.1m against the cap through the 2029-30 season, and as an October birthday, Thompson will be 32 years old at the conclusion of the deal.

12 months ago, the idea that Thompson would sign a mega deal was inconceivable and even laughable. Prior to the 2021-22 campaign, the 6’7” forward had played 145 games while notching 35 points in the process. It wasn’t until Granato moved Thompson to center for the 2021-22 season that the big man made a quantum leap with 38 goals and 30 assists in 78 games.

If not for that move to center, this deal almost certainly wouldn’t have materialized and Thompson may still have been languishing on the wing. Granato rightly realized that it makes a lot of sense to put Thompson – with his condor-like wingspan – in the middle of the ice where he can more easily soak up space and find the open areas that allow him to unleash his lethal shot. He uncorked that shot often during the '21-'22 campaign while spending a lot of time with Jeff Skinner on his left side and newcomer Alex Tuch on his right.

Thompson had never shown anything at the NHL level that remotely resembled the offensive explosion fans saw last season as he had been plagued with injuries and an inability to get the puck on net in an expedient fashion. Thompson’s reliance on the toe-drag wrist shot during his first few years meant that he often waited far too long to take a shot, and as a result, the opposing defender was able to get a stick on the puck before Thompson released.

That changed in 2021-22.

Thompson employed a more aggressive approach to shooting by firing quick wristers and one-timers rather than trying to finesse the perfect shot. This approach paid massive dividends for the former winger who scored twice as many goals in a single season as a center this past season (38) than he had cumulatively scored in the prior 145 games as a winger (18).

Make no mistake, though: the Sabres are accepting plenty of risk with this deal.

There’s no guarantee that Thompson continues to score goals at the 15% shooting clip that he managed last season, and the possibility for injuries to crop back up is very real as well. What the Sabres are banking on here is that Thompson continues to grow his two-way game over the course of the seven-year compact while also scoring around 60 points a year. After all, the cap will continue to rise as the league exits the pandemic, meaning Thompson’s percentage of the team’s cap will decrease as the salary cap increases.

The league, and even the Sabres’ own division, is aware of this as evidenced by the comparable contract Josh Norris signed with the Ottawa Senators earlier this offseason. Norris just finished a sophomore campaign (excluding an 8-game sample in ’19-’20) in which Norris scored 35 goals and added 20 assists in 66 games. The Senators opted to extend him with an 8-year, $7.95m per season deal rather than offer him a bridge contract because – seemingly – the team believes in his growth potential in relation to the escalating salary cap.

The Sabres are likewise in a good position to see a positive return on their investment in Thompson even if his shooting regresses next year and into the future. Assuming a sizeable but manageable regression to 30 goals and 30 assists in the years to come, Thompson’s $7m cap hit will still be totally reasonable for a player with those kinds of stats. After all, Kevin Hayes of the Philadelphia Flyers makes a near-identical amount of money per season ($7.14m) and he has only two 20-goal seasons on his resume, with a career high in points of 49.

For his part, Thompson is also accepting some risk for one simple reason: 6’7” centers who score 38 goals a year just aren’t a thing in the NHL. Had Thompson replicated his past season again this year, he could have accepted a one-year arbitration award during the summer of '23 and walked into free agency with every expectation that he would land a mega deal. In other words, Thompson cashed in some of his equity from this season in order to land a guaranteed payday.

And while Sabres fans are conditioned to expect the worst from any-and-all moves the team makes, there still exists the potential that Tage Thompson didn’t even hit his ceiling last year. There is room for growth on the defensive side of the puck given his ridiculous wingspan as he truly learns how to master his frame to take away time and space from opposing forwards in the defensive zone.

Again: 6’7” centers simply do not exist in the NHL (although Nick Bjugstad comes close at 6’6”) and that kind of unusual physical talent takes time to fully materialize and develop into a final product.

It's also refreshing to see the Sabres take a chance on a player and buy prime UFA years rather than try to slow-play the situation like they did with Sam Reinhart who ultimately had to be traded out of town as the team had run out of runway to lock him up long term. For Kevyn Adams, it’s his first signature long-term deal and a commitment to the “people who want to be here” mantra that he loves to espouse. It’s also an endorsement of a patient building approach that the Sabres have touted as Thompson has taken years to get to this point.

Both sides took a risk here, and now it’s up to Thompson to back up the team’s faith in his ability.

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