The $50 Million Man: Evaluating the Tage Thompson contract

Well, the Buffalo Sabres have signed Tage Thompson to a massive 7-year, $50 million contract.

Imagine hearing that sentence just one year ago.

It’s certainly a hefty price to pay for a player who has only had one NHL season of incredible success, but there’s layers to it. There has been an uproar of debate amongst the hockey community, so I am going to share my thoughts on both the player and the contract.

2021/22: The Year of the Tage

Before we can dive into what Tage Thompson will look like moving forward, we must talk about the initial jump that was made between the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons. Oh and what a jump it was. His improvements during the 2021/22 season earned him tens of millions of dollars. These improvements also happened right around his 24th birthday which is a little older than the typical age for a forward’s breakout season. 

A quick glance at the box score statistics and one can see that Thompson is a player who went from 7 goals in 65 games in 2018/19 to 8 goals in 38 games in 2020/21 to 38 goals (!) in 78 games in 2021/22. The quick-and-easy approach would be to write things off as pure luck. His shooting percentage nearly doubled, so of course he scored more goals. But there’s more to it than that.

Let’s take a look at some of Thompson’s individual 5v5 stats on a per 60 basis thanks to Evolving-Hockey:

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The number I would like to focus on here is his xFSh% (Expected Fenwick Shooting Percentage). Basically, FSh% is the percent of all unblocked shot attempts that are goals. Then xFSh% simply brings shot quality into the equation. The higher xFSh%, the better quality shot that player is getting off on average. If a player’s FSh% is higher than their xFSh% then they are shooting better than expected.

Thompson saw a major jump in his xFSh% in 2019/20. He was getting off higher quality shots and, unlike other forwards who typically post high xFSh% numbers, he was getting off these shots in great volume as well. His 1.02 ixG/60 at 5v5 was tied with Anrdrei Svechnikov for 11th in the NHL among skaters with at least 300 TOI. There were some marked improvements in his overall game, he put himself in situations where he could score.

However, he did not score. The goal totals would not follow the fantastic individual expected offense in 2020/21, so the improvements were all for naught on the score sheet. His 1.02 ixG/60 at 5v5 would only translate into 0.39 G/60. His 2.93 FSh% placed him below 5 defenseman on that Sabres team. He was not an elite finisher by any means, in fact, he was well below the NHL average.

The 2021/22 season saw a drastic change in Tage Thompson’s numbers. His G/60 jumped from 0.39 to an incredible 1.38. He managed to accomplish all of this while getting off less shot quantity (11.13 iSF/60 to 9.76 iSF/60) and less average shot quality (7.62 xFSh% to 6.13 xFSh%). Based on these numbers alone, luck seems like the only explanation here.

However, it would take a lot of luck for one of the worst finishers in the league in 2020/21 to suddenly go on a 78-game tear that sees him pot 38 goals. His “luck” never seemed to run out as the season progressed and his goal-scoring was fairly consistent. There were two substantial changes to Tage Thompson’s usage and deployment that unleashed his bottled up potential, so let’s break those two things down:

Off the Wall, On the Scoreboard

One of the most notable changes in Tage Thompson’s game in 2021/22 was the move to center. It was a position that he had not played since he joined the Sabres organization in 2018. It was certainly a bold move by Don Granato, taking a struggling winger and moving them to the most difficult forward position in the NHL. 

In hindsight, the move actually made some sense. While coming in at 6’7” and 218 pounds, Thompson is surprisingly not a physical forward and is more of a skill guy. Trying to get the puck off the wall and into a positive area of the ice was a constant struggle. It was too easy for defenders to close him off with his playing style. Just check out this compilation of 2020/21 clips from David St-Louis of EP Rinkside:

Remember those xFSh% we just talked about? Thompson showed a clear improvement in getting to the middle of the ice in the offensive zone to get his shot off. These expected goals did not turn into actual goals, this was partially due to the state of how the puck got there: never cleanly. The move to center would allow him to receive the puck in his preferred offensive zone position with time, space, and a moving goaltender.

Just check out the location of his 5v5 goals last season:

Tage Thompson went from a 0.39 5v5 G/60 guy in 2020/21 to a 1.38 5v5 G/60 guy (9th in the NHL) in 2021/22. His 5v5 shooting percentage jumped from 3.5% to 14.1%.

The 6’7” forward was now given access to pockets of space in the middle of the ice in the offensive zone, allowing him the time and space necessary to get his lethal shot off. The simple act of really being able to get his shot off is a large reason why he went from a bad finisher to an elite finisher. He always had the shooting mechanics, he was just never given the time and space to execute.

The move to center also improved things for Thompson in transition. Opponents could no longer use the boards as an “extra defender” to quickly close off time and space. He was also given more opportunity to mix in some shot fakes and slip passes in the center of the ice. He went from a liability in transition to a truly useful asset.

The best way to describe Tage Thompson: he’s a sports car. It’s not a car that can necessarily be used as an all-utility car. If you want to take full advantage of a sports car’s power then it needs to be used on the open road. Thompson on the wing in a forechecking role is like taking a sports car offroading. Thompson in the center of the ice is like taking a sports car on a smooth open road. He is a high-end piece when placed in the proper environment, but appears inefficient in the wrong environment.

Rush-Based Hockey is Fun Hockey

Let’s jump right into the second reason why Tage Thompson’s game saw marked improvements in 2021/22: rush-based hockey. The NHL’s play-by-play data that is used in public expected goal models simply plots the location of a shot and the type of shot. It provides no information about whether the shot was made in movement or from a standing position. It provides no information about where the opponents were located when the shot was taken. Pre-shot movement is a blind spot in most expected goal models, so rush shots are typically underrated by most models.

The Sabres’ system under Ralph Krueger allowed for some rush offense. Tage Thompson’s 10.5 Rush Shots/60 in 2020/21 actually placed him in the top quartile in the NHL and 2nd on the Sabres. But the rush offense could not be converted into goals at a typical rate. The Sabres’ 6.69 Sh% at 5v5 was the worst in the league in 2020/21. The system lacked (or prevented) any creative pre-shot movement.

Don Granato’s system provided a positive change for the Sabres offense in 2021/22. The Sabres switched to a more east-west style of play when transitioning the puck up the ice. Instead of constantly pushing the pace and grinding like Krueger’s system, they were more willing to create advantages in the neutral zone through the width of the rink and utilize the weak-side attacker. 

The rush-based hockey became even more fun after the team added a speedy, powerful winger in Alex Tuch who loved to push the pass. Toss him on a line with a chaotic scoring winger in Jeff Skinner along with the new centerman Tage Thompson who could easily find soft space to rip his shot and you have yourselves a hockey line.

Corey Sznajder’s tracked data even painted the trio as some of the highest volume rush players in the NHL in 2021/22:

rush1 The $50 Million Man: Evaluating the Tage Thompson contract

This line also generated an insane amount of offense. This chart from HockeyViz shows that this group produced an excess amount of shots from the slot area leading to a very impressive 3.38 xGF/60. So not only were they playing a rush-based style that allowed them to outproduce their expected goals (28 G on 21.3 xG), they were playing a style that also allowed them to produce a ton of expected offense as well. Basically offense on top of offense:

Screen Shot 2022 09 01 at 9.03.23 AM The $50 Million Man: Evaluating the Tage Thompson contract

2022/23: The Year of the Tage Part Two?

The biggest question surrounding Tage Thompson’s game is if he can replicate his 2021/22 production or at least get close to it. That’s a very fair question to ask when a player jumps from a career-high 8 goals to 38 goals. The value of his new $50 million contract extension hinges upon this question.

We went over the two major reasons why Thompson was a better finisher and better overall player last season: the move to center and the increased rush opportunities. I can confidently say that the move to center will stick as long as Don Granato is the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. He was not used at any other forward spot last season.

The rush-based offense should still be there. The reason I say should is because I know that will still be Thompson’s primary deployment in 2022/23, but the question is if the linemate quality will be there to sustain the effectiveness of that rush offense. Don Granato mixed up some of the lines to end the 2021/22 season, placing Alex Tuch elsewhere. Maybe he does the same to start this season?

Thompson’s line still produced at a fairly decent clip away from Tuch, putting up an on-ice scoring rate of 3.73 GF/60 at 5v5. The expected offense dropped a fair bit, going from 3.38 xGF/60 to 2.60 xGF/60. The two players were much better together than apart which may say more about the team’s lack of the depth than the two players’ over-reliance on each other.

It is a little bit nerve wracking to talk about a $50 million player who may need linemates to enhance his true style of play. But that is not a statement we can make with much certainty at this point in time. Thompson was still outproducing his expected goals away from his usual linemates. There are also a lot of player coming up through the Sabres system who are pacy, skilled, and can play rush-based hockey.

The Sabres have the future assets that should let Tage Thompson continue to play the style of hockey that allowed him to put together his breakout season. Their drafting patterns show no plans to turn away from rush-based hockey, they really just want to enhance that rush-based hockey. The pieces are in place for Tage to continue to be Tage for the foreseeable future.

The greatest concern in projecting Thompson’s future is that he went from really good to really bad in just one season. However, he did not make these improvements playing the same style of hockey with better finishing. There were large structural changes in his usage and deployment. The system was based around him and not vice versa.

For these reasons, I can confidently say that I expect Tage Thompson to be closer to the player that he was in 2021/22 than the one he was in 2020/21. This past season opened his eyes to how exactly he can succeed at the NHL level. That’s helpful since there’s not exactly a handbook on how to treat skilled 6’7” forwards at this level.

It is worth noting that a player can improve and become luckier at the same time. The luck or actual improvement question is not a binary one. I would not be surprised if Tage Thompson did have a bit of luck on top of his improvement in 2021/22 since his finishing was just so good. I still think the overall improvements to his game were good enough that even an unlucky Tage will be better than any pre-2021/22 Tage.


The Contract

While it is great that Tage Thompson looks like he will be closer to his 2021/22 self moving forward, he is going to have to be close to that level or better to justify the 7-year, $50 million contract that kicks in for the 2023/24 season. The Sabres paid him like he will be “that guy” moving forward:

Also, why now? That’s the biggest question about this contract. He still has one year remaining on his current contract and he would have still been a restricted free agent next summer. The Sabres would have had a full extra year of information on Thompson for contract negotiations if they waited. That extra year of stats is invaluable when a player has an outlier season like his 2021/22 campaign.

I have three theories on why Kevyn Adams and the Buffalo Sabres decided to sign him now. The first is simply that they truly think he is going to be the same exact player that he was last season, if not better. That player is certainly worth a 7-year, $50 million contract as 38 goals at 24 years old on a bad hockey team is no easy task. The confidence hides the risk.

My second theory is that they believe he will be paid like a 38-goal center no matter what. If he puts up 22 goals next season, he will still be known as the player who put up 38 goals that one season. As long as there is not an extreme drop off in his goal totals next season, that 38-goal season will absolutely be weighted heavily in contract negotiations.

My final theory is that they were afraid he would “walk.” Yes, he was set to be a restricted free agent next summer, but he would be only one season away from unrestricted free agency. We have seen players in that situation use their leverage to demand a trade away from their small market team to a more favorable situation. Matthew Tkachuk is the latest example. Buffalo’s own Sam Reinhart was an example from the prior offseason. Another fantastic season and he is a hot commodity on the market.

I do not fully subscribe to any of the above theories, so I find the timing of this contract extension to be a bit of head-scratcher. I would be more willing to take the cautious approach of waiting one more year to determine a contract extension for a player that saw an incredible one year improvement. You do not want to be caught in a long-term deal where the player is seeing peak value money into their 30s.

I am a big fan of Tage Thompson’s game and I do think he will continue to be an effective, exciting NHLer moving forward. He’s a 6’7” unicorn. However, I believe that this contract is slightly good in the best case scenario and unbelievably tragic in the worst case scenario. Where it will land within that range is anyone’s best guess.

  1. I think there is a fourth explanation and a huge one at that. Adams has a very impressionable young team and has preached about trust the process and change the culture. Kevyn can’t gain the trust of these younger players if doesn’t give his trust back. Adams is believing that Tage will feel a responsibility to the his team and to the fans of Buffalo unlike other players that Darcy Regier, Murray and Botterill signed ( ie Ville Leino, Christian Erhoff, Matt Moulson) out of a win-now mode. The young guns Dahlin, Cozens, Krebs etc. are watching and will be evaluating their belief that if they give maximum effort then the Sabres will reciprocate.

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