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The Sabres Might Have Something Here

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 31: Tage Thompson #72 of the Buffalo Sabres celebrates his hat trick goal with Rasmus Dahlin #26 during an NHL game against the Detroit Red Wings on October 31, 2022 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo won, 8-3. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The Buffalo Sabres, long the "Pass Go/Collect $200" of other teams' schedules, are on their third or fourth rebuild since the last time they won a playoff series, way back in the Bush Administration. There's potential—there's always potential when you regularly pick early and sell off anything of value from the previous, failed rebuild—but that's never been the problem. Where the Sabres have foundered is in development, in turning that potential talent into actual NHL talent with a high enough hit rate to field a competitive NHL team. A Jack Eichel here and a Sam Reinhart there are nice to have, surely, but an inability to surround them with anything useful is what keeps a rebuild a permanent state of existence. It's the next step that is even harder to take than merely hoarding, and the riskiest of all: the commitments.

When Tage Thompson agreed to a seven-year, $50 million extension this summer, he became the first of Buffalo's post-Eichel crop of young players to sign long-term. It was (and is) by no means a contract without its perils and its detractors. Thompson, 25, had been acquired four years earlier in an annual Sabres fire sale, and he wasn't even the focal point of the return for Ryan O'Reilly. In 145 NHL games across his first four seasons, he put up just 35 points, and as recently as two years ago was a member of the pandemic-season taxi squad. “Every day in practice, it was like, ‘This guy is unbelievable. He’s the best player on the ice,'" said Kyle Okposo. "And for whatever reason in the games, like, he just didn’t have the confidence, or it just wasn’t translating."

And then, out of necessity as much as his practice and preseason showings, the Sabres moved him to center, and after the Eichel trade put him alongside Alex Tuch and Jeff Skinner, and Thompson instantly shined. He put up 38 goals and 30 assists in 2021–22, and was rewarded with that big, controversial extension. It's often not best practices to pay a guy for the next seven seasons based off a track record of one, especially when he is still under team control. If Thompson doesn't maintain that level, well, same old Sabres. But if he does? And if he improves? Seven million a year for a 1C is a damn bargain, and one Buffalo will well appreciate if and when its other young guys pan out and need to be paid. In the future they hope is coming, the Sabres have their first building block firmly in place.

He still needs to perform, of course. And we will not be judging the next seven years by a couple weeks of early-season hockey, let alone by one single game; we will not be doing that. But. But but but.

Thompson had three goals, each prettier than the last, to go along with three assists—doubling his season totals in each—in Buffalo's 8-3 dismantling of the Red Wings on Monday night. If you want to go back to the previous game, Thompson scored or assisted on eight straight Sabres goals. "They've got to respect his shot and they've got to respect his size and that opens up space for everyone around him," his linemate Skinner said. "He's the kind of guy that could sort of take over a game and dominate, and he did that tonight."

Thompson had always profiled as a big-bodied sniper, because hockey personnel guys are generally uncreative and look at his size—6-foot-7 without skates—and his shot and see nothing else. But the move to center allowed Thompson to show off his hands in a way no one had seen coming. “The ability to handle the puck at that size,” Skinner marveled, “the combination is pretty tough [to defend]." So if Thompson's first goal last night, a heavy one-timer, was more emblematic of what he had spent his early career trying and mostly failing to do, goals two and three, the products of positioning and puckhandling, were something else entirely, something deliciously promising: the goals of a playmaker.

It's November now, which means it's no longer silly to look at the NHL standings and notice something unexpected and go, Huh, that's interesting. And if you look at them now, you will indeed notice that the Sabres are 6-3-0, and in second in their division. Are they poised to break the four-team stranglehold on the Atlantic? I would not dare go that far, this early, for any amount of money. But the Sabres, holes they may have, aren't a laughingstock anymore. They're a professional hockey team and a challenge for anyone on any night, and if this rebuild takes where others have stalled, they've got in Thompson their man in the middle for years to come. This is, given their history, the highest praise I can give them: The Sabres are finally, finally going in the right direction.

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