No matter the outcome of the regular season's final five weeks, Tage Thompson knows he will likely be playing playoff hockey next month. The only question is whether he will be in Buffalo or Rochester.
The Sabres' 21-year-old winger was told by General Manager Jason Botterill this week that he will likely join the Amerks for the AHL Calder Cup playoffs if the Sabres are unable to make a playoff run over the season's final month.
Thompson is not interested in thinking about playing in the AHL again. His focus is on improving his game enough now to earn the trust of coach Phil Housley and help the Sabres snap their playoff drought.
"I spoke to Botts about it, but our mindset is here, right now, and helping Buffalo," Thompson told The News following Friday's optional morning skate in KeyBank Center. "I want to do everything in my power to help our team here make the playoffs. We’ll cross that bridge if or when it comes."
Thompson, who was acquired along with Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and draft picks from St. Louis in the Ryan O'Reilly trade, had seven goals among 11 points with a minus-14 rating in 54 games entering Friday.
He had not scored in 12 consecutive games and had one goal in 16 games. That is not the sole reason why he was a healthy scratch Tuesday night in Philadelphia, though. Thompson is at his best when using his speed to get to the net and unleashing his heavy right-handed shot to get the puck on net.
He also needs to use his 6-foot-6, 205-pound frame to finish checks and gain leverage on opponents. Too often Thompson has tried to stick-handle around defenders, which has rendered him ineffective.
"I think it’s important for him to get his feet moving," Housley said. "That’s when he’s a much better player. When he’s standing still and trying to stick-handle through people it doesn’t bode well for him, but when he’s moving his feet and using his speed, because he is a fast player, he attacks the game the right way and he uses that deadly release. ... He just has to get back to his foundation of moving his feet."
Entering Friday, Thompson, who was officially assigned to Rochester on Monday to make him eligible for the Calder Cup playoffs and recalled hours later, was averaging just 12 minutes, 23 seconds per game — including eight minutes, 40 seconds Monday in Toronto — and ranked second-to-last among qualifying Sabres with a 46.46 percent Corsi, a measurement of 5-on-5 shot differential.
He was acquired for his offensive upside with the hope that his defensive play would improve with more NHL service time. Thompson split last season between St. Louis and its AHL affiliate, scoring three goals among nine points in 41 games with the Blues.
The Sabres opted to keep Thompson in the NHL this season, even when he was a healthy scratch in seven of nine games earlier this season. He earned a spot on the team's top line for a 4-3 loss in Carolina last month, only to tumble down the depth chart because of his defensive lapses and offensive tendencies. Now he's not generating enough chances and admitted he is pressing at times.
Thomson drew back into the lineup Friday against Pittsburgh, but he could be scratched again when Sobotka returns from an upper-body injury. The son of a former NHL player and current AHL coach, Thompson said his focus is on what he can control — performing well enough to remain in the Sabres' lineup the rest of the season.
"It’s a marathon, not a sprint," Thompson said. "I want to be here for a long time. I want to help the Sabres win Stanley Cups for years to come. I’m a young guy. It’s part of the development. You’re going to go through ups and downs throughout your season, throughout your career. For me, it’s keeping that mindset that when I’m not getting minutes just work hard and be strong in one-on-one puck battles. Do everything to help the team when I’m not contributing offensively."