With the NHL officially returning to play, I have some free advice to give to my fellow Flyers fans as the chase for the Stanley Cup begins:
Try to act like you have been here before.
With all of the excitement of the return to play after an absence of sports due to COVID-19, it is understandable that fans get a little carried away. After all, there was a large void in our lives that only Flyers hockey could fill. Korean baseball, Belorussian slap fighting, and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest have their place but they pale in comparison to the return of Flyers hockey.
Especially with the Flyers looking like potential contenders for the sports ultimate prize after years of mediocrity, fans have every right to be excited. The breath of fresh air ushered in by Head Coach Alain Vigneault has given this team some swagger that has allowed the rest of the NHL to take notice and rightfully acknowledge him as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year. GM Chuck Fletcher deserves a huge amount of credit for the Flyers turnaround as well (many would say even more) as the additions of Matt Niskanen, Kevin Hayes, and Justin Braun payed massive dividends this year in allowing the Flyers to challenge for the Metropolitan Division title.
The Flyers won 9 of their last 10 games before the pause and were gelling as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Even with salary cap constraints, Fletcher brought in Derek Grant and Nate Thompson to add depth to the roster and shore up the bottom six in anticipation of the playoffs and making the Flyers a team that will be a tough out in this postseason.
While Grant has already had some memorable moments and games with the Flyers in his short stint thus far (1 goal and 4 assists for 5 points in 7 games), Nate Thompson has been the forgotten acquisition in many respects. While only tallying a lone assist in his 7 games with the Flyers, Thompson did manage to score 4 goals and 10 assists for 14 points in 63 games with the Montreal Canadiens in a fourth line role.
Parts of this fanbase have basically treated Thompson with hostility and general disrespect. After all, Grant really turned heads with his performances since being acquired. With all of the Flyers momentum gone with the postponement of the regular season, every player has had to hit the reset button to get back into playing shape to convince to the coaching staff that they belong on the playoff roster.
Thompson is no different.
Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher acquired Thompson from the Montreal Canadiens at this year’s trade deadline by giving the Habs a 2021 Fifth Round pick. He has joined a team that is jockeying for seeding position and is in the thick of it. They are a team that has come together and banded together under the trust and leadership provided by both Chuck Fletcher, and Alain Vigneault.
So why is Thompson such a divisive figure among some members of this fanbase? Let’s take a look at why that is, and why Thompson should be seen as a valuable asset for the Flyers locker room in this playoff run.
Now with the Flyers, Thompson (an American player from Anchorage, Alaska) has plied his trade in the NHL with eight different teams since 2006-07. Over that span, Thompson’s 13 seasons have seen him score 62 goals and 94 assists for 156 points in 767 games. In stops with the Bruins, Islanders, Lightning, Ducks, Senators, Kings, and Canadiens, Thompson has seen the ups and downs of life as an NHL player. 13 seasons gives you a lot of experience and a lot of perspective.
In the initial phase of his career starting in 2006-07, Thompson had already played for three teams before being claimed by the Tampa Bay Lightning in middle of the 2010 season. He would end up re-signing with the Lightning on one, two, and four-year contracts and began to assert himself as a hard-working forward who could play a checking role on the bottom line of an NHL roster.
With Tampa Bay, Nate Thompson got his first taste of playoff action in his second season with the Bolts in 2010-2011 when the Lightning made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final. Playing in 18 games that playoff, Thompson scored 1 goal and 3 assists for 4 points to go along with 4 PIM’s. Tampa Bay played Boston and lost in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Bruins team and losing 1-0 in the series deciding game.
Tampa Bay would only make the playoffs one other time while Thompson was on the roster; getting swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens in 2014. Regardless, playing a regular role on a team that made a significant run in the playoffs is impressive. Many players play for quite awhile and never get to feel what it is like to be on a team during a run like he had in his second year with Tampa. He would experience other such runs in the playoffs with the Anaheim Ducks in the 2015 to 2017 editions of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In 2015, Anaheim would make it to the Western Conference Final by sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round and followed that up by defeating the Calgary Flames in the Second Round. Once again, Thompson would be on a team that lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion as the Ducks lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in seven games and had to be bitterly disappointed after squandering a 3-2 lead in that series. Thompson featured in 12 of the Ducks 16 games in that postseason, scoring 2 goals and 4 assists for 6 points.
The following season, the Ducks once again made the postseason but lost to the Nashville Predators in the opening round in seven games. Thompson registered 2 goals for the Ducks in the losing cause, and played in all 7 games. The loss was unexpected as the Ducks entered the 2015-16 season as a strong contender for the Stanley Cup.
Being a part of team that delivered far from expectations, Thompson and the Ducks turned it around during the 2017 Playoffs and would again make it back to the Western Conference Final. After sweeping the Calgary Flames in Round 1, the Ducks defeated the Edmonton Oilers in 7 games to set up a matchup with the Nashville Predators. Thompson once again could not get into the Stanley Cup Final as the Predators defeated the Ducks in 6 games and eliminated them for the second time in three years. Playing in all 17 games, Thomson scored 2 goals and 4 assists for 6 points.
Thompson’s numbers don’t jump off the page at you, but having three deep playoff runs on two separate teams should. He has shown that he can play in a fourth line role on teams that have depth and be a valuable fit in the locker room. With a team that is filled with playoff inexperience, Thompson should be able to provide some calm to add to the experiences of Niskanen, Braun, and Giroux who are the teams’ playoff veterans. Chipping in offensively should not be expected with Thompson (although he did grab a goal in the first postseason game against Boston), but any points would be a welcome bonus on a team looking to make an impact.
The insertion of Nate Thompson into the starting lineup for the exhibition game against Pittsburgh and the first postseason game against Boston has ruffled a few feathers amongst some members of this fan base. The main argument being that Thompson should not figure into the optimal lineup that the Flyers should be placing on the ice to give the Flyers the best chance of success.
Rather, Nate Thompson’s inclusion in the lineup has been attacked due to the fact that rookie Joel Farabee would likely be the one to sit in the press box. The issue has been framed as Thompson vs. Farabee with fans opting to choose between the young rookie for inclusion in the lineup rather than the older 35-year old veteran. Taken in such a simplistic way, the answer appears very obvious that Farabee is the better player of the two. In fact, when it is framed that way, it is almost impossible the argue that Thompson is a better player than Farabee especially when considering offense and upside. But Alain Vigneault is not inserting Thompson into the lineup based on who the better player is. It is all about fitting players into roles that can best allow this team to perform at its best.
Before the exhibition game against the Penguins, Vigneault was tinkering with his lineup options. He had previously expressed publicly that the games prior to the official start of the playoffs would be used to get a gage on where his players were at from both a fitness as well as from a strategic standpoint. It became pretty clear that the forward units being debated were as follows:
Forward Lineup #1 Forward Lineup #2
Giroux – Couturier – Voracek Giroux – Couturier – Voracek
Farabee – Hayes – Konecny Laughton – Hayes – Konecny
Van Riemsdyk – Laughton – Aube Kubel Van Riemsdyk – Grant – Aube Kubel
Raffl – Grant – Pitlick Raffl – Thompson – Pitlick
The key consideration for Vigneault was neither Thompson nor Farabee. The major decision for the lineup was whether or not Scott Laughton was to be utilized as a center or to be deployed on the wing. Laughton has seen a career renaissance under the new coaching staff, and both the eye test and analytics have both emphasized that Laughton has been more effective this season on the wing. Having success when paired up with Hayes added further evidence that maximizing chemistry between players would be a great strategy to employ when games resumed due to the unpredictable element that naturally exists when players have not played any meaningful games for about 5 months. In games where Thompson was in the lineup as the fourth line center for 7 games, Laughton playing on the wing scored 1 goal and added 6 assists for 7 points to go along with a +8 rating. The Flyers had a 6-1 record in those 7 games before the pause occurred.
Farabee presents an interesting dilemma. As a rookie, there is no doubt that he has at times impressed over the course of this season and that playoff experience would be excellent to add to a player is just beginning to embark on his NHL career. I can absolutely get on board with that. Again, all of the underlying stats would say unequivocally that Farabee gives the Flyers the best opportunity to perform on the offensive side of the puck in comparison to Thompson. However, even the most ardent Joel Farabee fan has to acknowledge that being thrust into a top six forward role is a bit ambitious and presumptuous for him at this stage. Joel Farabee is not a second line winger yet, and Nate Thompson is absolutely a fourth line player.
Furthermore, playoff hockey is different from regular season hockey. Referees do not call the game the same way and tend to let things go more, teams revert to a more defensively responsible style of play, and special teams are magnified in importance. Thompson was brought in because he can spend time on the penalty kill and take some hard minutes away from Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes. Having depth at his disposal with Thompson in the lineup allows Vigneault the option to spell those two players so that they can be fresher in the latter stages of a game or even a series.
Having this option is critical to the overall success of this team. In the Pittsburgh and Boston games, the Flyers penalty kill was a tremendous success and killed all six of the opposing powerplay opportunities that they faced. Thompson did play penalty killing minutes in those contests and performed very well in that role. Vigneault now has more options at his disposal due to the fact that he has seen the team in action with Thompson in that checking role and on the penalty kill.
So what about Joel Farabee? I do agree that he should be seeing time at some point here to gain valuable experience. It certainly appears after the injury sustained by Raffl against Boston that Farabee would be the first choice to step into the lineup. He should and will see time. I just don’t believe that fans should be up in arms over Nate Thompson “blocking his path into the lineup”. That phrase was used ad nauseum during the Dave Hakstol era. With all of the great decisions, systems, and culture change that have been attributed directly to Alain Vigneault’s impact as a first year Head Coach; shouldn’t Vigneault be given more trust and leeway to make the lineup decisions that he feels are necessary to put the Flyers in the best possible position to succeed? Isn’t that why he is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award? Until proven otherwise, Vigneault has earned the right to make those decisions (whatever they may be) and should be trusted by the fans to make those decisions.
The issue of whether Thompson should be in the lineup was never about him versus Farabee. Fans have to let that go and stop all the hate for Nate. This has always been a coaching decision and should not be turned into a popularity contest on social media. Certainly not at playoff time.
His Personal Life
Back to Nate Thompson.
As referenced earlier, Nate Thompson has seen his share of ups and downs throughout his professional hockey career. Those ups and downs have played a prominent role in his personal life as well. Like millions of other people, Nate Thompson has struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. While with the Montreal Canadiens earlier this season, Nate Thompson sat down with Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson for a candid and revealing interview about his personal struggles. Here is the interview:
This video is courtesy of Sportsnet.
In the interview, Thompson and his wife Sydney open up about the alcohol and drug abuse as well as candidly looking at how that abuse affected him personally and professionally. One cannot help but wonder about the mental health and well being of Nate Thompson the person, and how difficult his struggles and demons were to overcome.
To be able to speak openly and honestly about such struggles takes an incredible amount of courage. Nate Thompson is at a place in his life where he has a greater understanding of what he was doing to himself and how his actions affected those around him. Even more inspiring is the fact that he sought help and acknowledged that he was not being the person that he ultimately wanted to be. It is very difficult to look in the mirror and honestly face the struggles that you are having head on. It is even more difficult to battle those realities each and every single day in an attempt to be sober and initiate a reset on your life.
Nate Thompson knows that he has a second chance in his life and in his hockey career. He is now on a Flyers team that is looking to make a statement in the playoffs. The Flyers locker room has dealt with a ton of adversity this season and really banded together to support Oskar Lindblom through his cancer diagnosis and treatment as well as for Nolan Patrick as he struggled with a migraine disorder all season. This is a tight knit room full of players that stand up for one another and recognize that they are in this this battle together.
Nate Thompson will be welcomed seamlessly into this locker room. He is not the most offensively talented player on the roster (certainly there are other players that made the trip to Toronto that are more gifted as hockey players), but he is a hard worker who has had to fit into locker rooms during playoff time before. When Raffl went down injured during the Bruins game, who was it that confronted Boston’s Jeremy Lauzon on what appeared to be a slew foot on the play?
Nate Thompson did.
Don’t think for one second that the Flyers players and the coaching staff didn’t notice it. They did. Thompson went to defend a teammate and showed his fellow Flyers unequivocally that he is part of this team. He is in the fight with them and he will do whatever it takes and do what is asked of him. He wants to be there to support his teammates and help them in any way possible during this years playoffs. Heck, he even scored a goal earlier in that same game! He can contribute on this team and can help share some of the experiences that has enabled teams that he has been on to make deep runs in the postseason.
But it isn’t just about what Thompson can give to the Flyers. The Flyers are also giving back to Nate Thompson.
With the Flyers locker room being such a solid and supportive group, Nate Thompson is on a team best suited to help him as he continues on his hockey journey and continually fights to be the best person he can be for himself and his family. Being in the bubble in Toronto with such a tight group of teammates is an incredible support for Thompson and everything that he is trying to overcome. Anyone who has struggled with addiction will tell you that the support of others is a critical component to recovery and sobriety. If any group in this unique playoff scenario can pull together and rally around and support a teammate with these issues it is this Philadelphia Flyers team.
There is no question that Nate Thompson has earned the respect of his Flyers teammates, the coaching staff, and the front office. So why are some segments of this fan base so reluctant to give Nate Thompson a chance?
The negativity around some of the comments circulating social media are not fair at all to the player and are misplaced in some fictitious narrative that Thompson is stopping Farabee from being in the playoff lineup. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The playoffs are exciting, and it has been far too long since the Flyers have had a team this deep and competitive. Slandering Nate Thompson without knowing much about the player or the man is truly a despicable act. The reality is that this team is full of players on the roster than can contribute. The problem remains that Alain Vigneault can only ice a squad of 18 skaters. Not everyone can play in every game. Vigneault has been tasked with the job of selecting that squad. He has done a phenomenal job this season of making decisions to allow for the Philadelphia Flyers to succeed. He should continue to do so, and the fans need to trust that the new leadership of this club can get the most out of this team regardless of which players wear the uniform on any given night.
Earlier in this article, I asked Flyers fans to “Try to act like you have been here before” when approaching the playoffs. At playoff time, fans traditionally throw all their critiques and criticisms away and throw their undying and unending support behind their team and the players on it. Instead, segments of this fan base are bickering about player selections, positions, ice time, and everything else under the sun that really should not matter once the chase for Lord Stanley begins.
Nate Thompson has more playoff experience than every Flyers player on the roster with the exception of Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun, and Claude Giroux. He has made it to the Conference Finals three times in his career with two separate teams. It is a major reason why Chuck Fletcher acquired him at the trade deadline with relatively little fanfare but could turn out to be an absolute steal in terms of value.
Nate Thompson doesn’t need to “Try to act like you have been here before”. He has been there before. Hopefully, the wealth of experience that Thompson has can help the Flyers achieve heights that have not been seen for a decade.
Some Flyers fans need to stop with the hate for Nate and show the same support that this fanbase has given to Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick. Thompson, Lindblom, and Patrick have all struggled with massive health issues this season. Despite the stigma associated with it, alcohol and drug addiction and abuse is a health issue. Fans should be in Nate Thompson’s corner lending their support, not their critiques and snide commentary.
In terms of his hockey career and his personal life, Nate Thompson does not need judgement. He needs support. He knows that he is on a very good team and that he has been given a new lease on life both professionally as well as personally. This Flyers team will make sure that he feels valuable as a teammate and as a person inside that locker room and on the ice in the heat of battle.
Shouldn’t all Flyers fans do the same?
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Until next time from BrotherlyPuck.com,
photo credit: NHL.com