Nate Thompson made a strong impression soon after he arrived in Tampa last season.
Claimed off waivers from the New York Islanders, Thompson won face-offs -- almost all of them for a while – stuck up for teammates, threw hits and killed penalties. He was that lunch-pail guy every team needs.
When the season ended, Thompson did not just rest of the fact he had made an impact. He set his sights on more.
“I was just determined to take that next step in the league, establish myself,” Thompson said. “I had the mentality going into the summertime that I wanted to be a better hockey player.”
Thompson, 26, didn’t just work in the gym.
The 6-foot, 210-pound center, took stick-handling lessons with former NHL defenseman Lance Pitlick, worked on shooting with former Minnesota North Star Scott Bjugstad and wore out a shooting tarp. He worked with others on his skating, trying to quicken his feet and improve the explosion with his first step.
When he got to training camp, Thompson said he felt like he had more jump in his step. Others noticed even more.
“He was much faster than I thought,” Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher said. “He took [his workouts] very seriously this summer. Everybody knows he was a good leader, a guy who pays the price, blocks shots, is reliable and does anything he can to win. But he was a slower player, which can make him a lower impact player. He’s able to do what he was doing great before, but he’s doing it quicker, which is a big help.”
Thompson, who signed a one-year, one-way deal in the off season, still had to earn a spot and it did not take him long.
In the first preseason game at Dallas, Thompson had four shots, four blocks, four hits and an assist. Boucher said about a week before the season opener that the Anchorage, Alaska native
would be on the team.
“He gave himself his own boost,” Boucher said. “I don’t think we’re giving him a chance. He’s giving himself a chance. He took his career into his own hands and figured out what he needed to do to be at this level. Not a lot of guys can do what he did [increase speed]. That’s major training and major commitment. It’s impressive.”
Thompson played with a lot of different players last season in 32 games (one goal, three assists) with the Bolts. This season, he has melded perfectly with linemates Adam Hall and Dana Tyrell from the opening preseason game. They have been together since and have been used to check other team’s top lines. They slowed down Brad Richards’ line in the Oct. 18 win against Dallas (outshooting them, 7-4) and held Sidney Crosby to one assist in the victory over Pittsburgh Wednesday. Thompson played a season-high 19:29 (17:26 was the previous high) against the Penguins, had an assist on Tyrell’s first NHL goal and was named the game’s third star. Hall played 20:56, third among forwards.
“It’s a huge boost for our line,” Hall said. “We use it as a feather in our cap and try to build on it every game.”
Boucher likes to move people around on lines, but it has been tough to split them up.
“Every time they play together they just make it happen, even in practice,” Boucher said. “They look like the Hanson brothers out there. You look for chemistry and those guys have it.”
Tyrell, a rookie who had to battle to make the team, and Hall, a veteran who spent all last season in the minors, play with the hunger Boucher desires -- just like Thompson.
“We really compliment each other well,” Thompson said. “Dana’s a small guy, but real strong on his skates and really fast. He’s only 21 and that’s the impressive part about him. Hallsy has been around. He does a lot of things that go unnoticed. It’s been good so far. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
Thompson has always found a way to fit in and take the lead.
He was captain in juniors with Seattle and in the American Hockey League at Providence. Thompson couldn’t quite break in with Boston, playing just four games. He played parts of the next two seasons with the Islanders. Scott Gordon, who coached him in Providence and New York, is not surprised Thompson has found a consistent lineup spot in Tampa.
“Nate’s an honest player,” Gordon said. “He’s going to work every night. Last year, we just had more players like him at one point. When we started to get some players back [from injuries], there was an excess of players and he was the odd guy out. It wasn’t because we didn’t appreciate him as a player.”
Thompson has two assists and is sixth among Lightning forwards in ice-time per game (14:22, three seconds behind Ryan Malone), third in hits (13), first in face-off percentage (57.5) among players who have taken 40 or more, has eight blocks and just one giveaway in nine games.
Boucher, who has often said the third and fourth lines carry the culture of the team, said Thompson and Hall are examples for a lot of the guys because “every day, they do exactly what you ask.”
Thompson has found a home.
“I’ve been moving around the last couple years and your goal is always to stay in one place for a long time,” Thompson said. “I have an opportunity here to do that. But I know I have to play well every day to prove my worth.”