With the rise of the USHL as a serious and effective training ground for American prospects, the NCAA is seeing an influx of talented youth much quicker than ever before and it’s not just open to the so called ‘elite.’ Historically, college hockey has been seen as an early draft year destination for cream of the crop players such as Parise, Toews, and Eichel, but as of last year, there seems to be a shift in a variety of prospects now taking aggressive routes to their preferred colleges. NTDP U18 alum, Tage Thompson, is the latest to dive head first into DI hockey and presents a very intriguing development opportunity/model.
All in a matter of an offseason, the UCONN Huskies gave their hockey program a shot in the arm with their incoming freshman class and spiced things up in terms of becoming an NHL scouting ground. Led by top forward and Coyotes prospect Max Letunov, Thompson joins fellow NTDP’er Joe Masonius and BCHL, Sens 3rd rounder Miles Gendron. Thompson comes from playing up with NTDP U18 in his pre draft year albeit in a depth role. He never fully flexed his package like a top player, but did show very good puck control, which is a beautiful sight from a 6’5 towering forward. If you look at USHL play alone, Thompson scored 14PTS in 25GP with U18 while consensus 2016 top 10 Max Jones scored 10PTS in 24GP with U17.
In 4GP this year, he has been attached to centerman Letunov’s hip and looks to be in a prime position to ‘overperform’ offensively in a sense and really jolt his prospect status. He already has 4A for PPG, and has shown flashes of high end stickhandling. One of his recent assists came off of a lost play in the slot after he deked the pants off an opponent. Letunov swooped in thereafter and scored on his backhand. He doesn’t look like a first year player, handling the pace and physicality well thanks to his USDP upbringing. His hands are great for his size, and as he’s getting his first bit of action underneath him will learn to protect the puck better. Right now, he’s 50-50 in puck dealing as it’s not always the smoothest reception, dish, or stickhandle. He’s a big forward who depends on his skill instead of grit. As such, he plays with a reactionary pace that will only get more efficient as he reads the unfolding play quicker. A comparable player, very loosely, coming into college hockey last year in AJ Greer, scored 7PTS in 37GP and was given enough rope for his mediocre start as a freshman to be selected in the early 2nd round.
As long as he continues to soak up 1st line real estate, Thompson will be buoyed by Letunov’s special ability. He has a pivot he can lean on, and also will be exposed to some high end plays very early on. Not many draft eligibles can boast this much of a positive environment. Thompson is huge at 6’5 and underweight, so he is a draft eligible who will undergo considerable physical development at the same time he’s supersaturating his skill development. It’s unclear if Thompson will see some dropoff from his current play, but what is not a question is choosing UCONN was a great developmental choice that will power up his draft projection.