Eating can be a laborious task for Tage Thompson. The Buffalo Sabres winger consumes as many calories as possible during breakfast, lunch and dinner, all part of his plan to add weight to his 6-foot-6, 205-pound frame.
It can feel like a lost cause at times, though.
"It's near impossible during the season," the 21-year-old joked after the Sabres' 3-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks in KeyBank Center on Saturday night.
Thompson successfully has maintained his weight during his first season in Buffalo and hopes more strength will come with time. That will allow him to better protect the puck in the offensive zone. But it isn't something he can really control until the offseason.
In the meantime, coach Phil Housley has encouraged Thompson to keep shooting when he has the puck. That's something he can work on now.
That not-so-simple directive helped Thompson generate scoring chances against the Ducks and could lead to some much-needed secondary scoring for the Sabres.
"That’s one of the things I’m really good at, using my shot," Thompson said. "I think I need to use it more. Today, in particular, we had a lot of good chances. I think I had like four or five shots off forechecks or whatever. ... Some nights you get those chances and some nights they don’t bounce your way."
Though Thompson did not score, he tied Jack Eichel for the team lead with four shots on goal. He hit the post in the first period and helped the Sabres outshoot the Ducks, 30-25, through two periods. Thompson was limited to 10:30 on the ice for the game as Buffalo had to kill three penalties in the third period.
It was Thompson's second impressive performance in as many nights. Last week, Thompson was moved to the fourth line to play with Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons, who are two fast, defensively responsible players.
That line combined for six shots on goal in a 2-1 loss in Washington on Friday and started the game Saturday against Anaheim. Though Housley made the move to avoid having Eichel face Ducks center Ryan Kesler, Housley chose the fourth line as a reward for its play in Washington.
Housley recently has not been pleased with the Sabres' propensity to overpass. He wants his players to have a "shot mentality," which is an aggressive mindset to shoot instead of trying to make a perfect pass.
Few players on the roster have a shot like Thompson's. The trick is for him to find time and space to use it.
"Reading the play, reading your linemates," Thompson said of that challenge. "Seeing where they are, where they have the puck. Trying to get open for them. Shot selection. You want to put your teammates in the right position, whether you’re shooting off the pad or making sure you’re hitting the net. A lot of that is reading the play and making sure you’re in the right spot."
Thompson has not scored in 11 straight games, but his four goals in 30 games this season have illustrated what he's capable of. His last goal came Nov. 29 in Tampa Bay when Thompson, with a winning streak on the line, toe-dragged the puck in the right circle and rifled a wrist shot far side to give Buffalo a one-goal lead.
Five days earlier, Thompson scored on a one-timer slapshot from the left circle to give the Sabres a one-goal lead in Detroit.
Thompson was a healthy scratch for seven out of nine games from Oct. 20 through Nov. 8. Rather than sending him to Rochester, the Sabres opted to have Thompson learn by watching video and working with the coaching staff before and after practice. His shot is one reason why he stayed.
"His physical tools are great. He's a big kid with NHL skating skills, size and shot," General Manager Jason Botterill told The Buffalo News recently. "He needs to get stronger but we felt he had the traits that we could work with at the NHL level. There's no manual that says "this is how we will go about this" for every player. To me, we're not sitting here saying that we're experts in development. There's give and take, discussion all the time with our coaches, the player."
Thompson needs to improve in the defensive zone and that signature toe-drag has resulted in more turnovers than he'd like, but he has shown the ability to score. His 62.5 Corsi-for percentage – which measures the percentage of shots taken by a team when the player is on the ice during 5-on-5 play – ranked first among all Sabres against the Ducks.
Since the end of the 10-game winning streak on Nov. 29, the Sabres have received only six goals from forwards not on their top line. Thompson's progress is significant. The former first-round draft pick was acquired along with Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and draft picks from St. Louis in the Ryan O'Reilly trade.
Thompson appeared in 41 games for the Blues last season with three goals among nine points. Though Sobotka is a versatile veteran, Thompson and the draft picks were the prized acquisitions in the summer blockbuster.
Now, Thompson is hoping to use that shot to make an impact when the Sabres reconvene following the brief holiday break.
"It’s been a great first half," he said. "It will be nice to get home and see some family. Relax and enjoy the holidays. Get some rest here. It’s been a pretty tough first half here in the schedule. Focus up and prepare to keep this thing rolling in the second half."