Sabres’ Tage Thompson has helped Peyton Krebs through slow start: ‘It’s not if, it’s when’


BUFFALO, N.Y. — A few weeks ago, Tage Thompson was heading out to practice early and grabbed Peyton Krebs to join him. When players head out to the ice early, they might be doing some individual work or working one-on-one with a coach. Thompson wanted to make a point to go out and work specifically with Krebs.

A 2019 first-round pick, Krebs was a key piece of the return in the trade that sent Jack Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights a year ago. Because of that, his development has been in the spotlight. While Eichel is enjoying a productive season in Vegas, it’s natural for observers to want some signs that Krebs can be a productive NHL player. So far, though, Krebs has three points in 19 games this season. He’s been out of the lineup for six of Buffalo’s games, has bounced between wing and center, and had at least 10 minutes of ice time with nine different forwards. This is clearly not the start Krebs expected from himself. Thompson recognized that.

Thompson has also been where Krebs is. Right now, Thompson is 25 years old and one of the NHL’s leading goal scorers. Four years ago, he was 21 and in his first season in Buffalo. A 2016 first-round pick in St. Louis, Thompson had been dealt to the Sabres as part of the trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues. In his first full season with the Sabres, Thompson played 65 games, averaged 12 minutes of ice time per night, and had five goals and seven assists. When Thompson looked a few stalls over in Buffalo’s locker room at Krebs, he saw a lot of himself.

“It’s not an easy situation to be in,” Thompson said.

Krebs has made a habit of being one of the first ones on and last ones off the ice. When Krebs was out of the lineup, Granato made a point to emphasize how important practice would be. As Krebs put it, when he’s not in the lineup, practices are his games. Those steps back out of the lineup aren’t easy for a player of Krebs’ caliber to handle. Like anyone who reaches the NHL, he’s used to being the top player in his age group, one who stands above his peers and produces points. Adversity like this is different.

“You get this false sense of just because you were drafted in the first round where he was or you were drafted high and you sign and you get to an NHL team that you’ve arrived,” Granato said. “You might not really arrive for four years or five years. It takes time. That gets confusing because people are judging you and rating you. You should be scoring. You should be doing this, you should be doing that. These guys don’t have experience so everything is an experience for them, everyday they come to that rink.”

Granato has rotated a few young players out of the lineup this season. He did it with Jack Quinn earlier in the year while he found his way, and Quinn later remarked at how helpful it was to sit back and watch without the pressure to perform. He had extra time to study video and work on small details in practice. He’s since found a home on the second line, and he’s scoring in bunches.

Krebs doesn’t have to look far to find other examples of players who struggled early only to figure things out. He’s always had a hard time staying away from the rink. His dad used to make him take a couple of months off each year, because otherwise, Krebs’ work ethic would drive him to skate year-round. With that in mind, these moments of reflection from the press box might be the best thing for him. Granato sees how much players progress over the summer because they have that time to step away and reflect. He’s trying to mimic that in-season.

“I think when you go up top it’s slower so you realize you have more time than you think,” Krebs said. “I try to use that to my advantage with little things that I saw. I have some notes that I wrote down that I saw from up top that I knew I was going to use when I played and it helped.”

In the Sabres’ win over the Sharks on Sunday, Granato made a mid-game switch to put Krebs at center between Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons. In the third period, that line played well together, generating a pair of scoring chances and dominating zone time. Krebs knows he needs to get more pucks on net, too. As a natural playmaker, he said he finds himself holding onto the puck a second too long looking for a better play. That extra second is all NHL defenses need to break up a play. Thompson said he struggled with a similar problem earlier in his career and is still trying to find the right balance between when to make the simple play and when you may have an opportunity to create something more.

Thompson sees how much work Krebs puts in behind the scenes. He is also consistently impressed by the way Krebs thinks about the game and sees plays on the ice. Those qualities combined with the maturity with which Krebs has handled his situation not only make Thompson a believer but made him want to go out of his way to help.

“Everyone’s got their own path,” Thompson said. “You can’t look at one person and say you should be here based on your age or what you’ve done in the past. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone has a different way to the NHL and a different way that they’re finding their game. People forget how young he is. He’s so mature for his age and he’s obviously been in the league for a little bit, too, so he does have experience. But he’s still a kid. He’s going to find his way. It’s not if it’s when.”

Krebs at least has the comfort of calling Buffalo home. Last season, he was traded from Vegas early in the season and split time between the AHL and NHL. That meant living out of a hotel at times. Even though Krebs hasn’t been a fixture in the lineup, Granato thinks he’s getting more out of being in the NHL, both in practice and in games, than he would get in Rochester.

“Peyton has used every day to become better,” Granato said. “His attention and focus has been on getting better. I think before, prior to this struggle, it was on results and, ‘I’m not getting results. I should feel shame. I should feel terrible. What’s wrong with me? I’m not getting results.’ There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re 21 years old coming into the NHL. Embrace this as part of the natural progression of you becoming better and better every day. He’s done that. He’s found a different way to look at it that is helping him progress faster.”

Those conversations with Thompson helped Krebs change his perspective. When you see your struggles as an indication that you’re failing, you can start to backslide. When you see it as a part of a longer journey toward success, it’s easier to focus on the day-to-day.

“Tage is a great example,” Krebs said. “Four years of absolutely grinding and then he got his shot and look where he is now. I think you look at those guys and I’ve had some great conversations with Tage. He’s been a great support for me. His story of how he got to where he is, you can look at it and say, ‘Ok, I might not have this or that this year, but if I keep going at the right pace and doing my thing, it can happen.’ A lot of people think it just happened overnight. But it didn’t. There was a lot of work finding himself as a person and a player. One day it shows that you had all the skill all along it’s just putting it into play.”

Thompson said the path he took gives him a greater appreciation for what players like Krebs are going through. He remembers how hard it was to block out the outside opinions about his game, but he also recognized that as part of being a professional hockey player. He looked at it as a chance to become mentally stronger and focus even harder on his practice and training habits.

“It’s exciting to be a part of because when he does finally turn into the player he’s going to be, you’re going to be able to say I was with him when he was in the dark times and going through all of that stuff,” Thompson said. “I’m rooting for him maybe a little more than some other people because I can relate to him quite a bit right now.”

What Thompson has done for Krebs is part of a growing trend in the Sabres’ locker room. Three players — Kyle Okposo, Rasmus Dahlin and Zemgus Girgensons — wear letters that denote captain status. But others still feel the agency to lead when they see fit. Thompson doesn’t think what he’s doing for Krebs is unique. He sees Dahlin pushing Owen Power and plenty of other internal competition on the roster.

“We have a fun group,” Thompson said. “Everyone in here loves hockey and loves being together all the time. I’m excited. We’re not where we want to be yet. I think everyone knows that. We will get there. We’ll have a lot of fun doing it. And when we do get there we’re going to be very dangerous.”

Thompson views Krebs as a big piece of that. Granato said he knows when the production comes for Krebs it will be authentic production because he’s gone through struggles. Adversity doesn’t guarantee success later on, but it’s often a necessary part of growth. Krebs has started to see that in the last few months.

“I’ve had my mental battles for sure, but I’m working through that and learning about myself as a person, growing up as an adult,” Krebs said. “That comes with time and experience. You’re going to have failures, you’re going to have success. The more I can get that out of the way early, it’s going to help in the long run. In the moment it sucks. You just have to live in that moment and say, ‘Ok, this sucks, but remember this 10 years from now, five years from now, next year even.’”

As others in the Sabres’ locker room have shown, when it clicks, the script can flip in a hurry.

“Confidence is an interesting thing,” Krebs said.

(Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports)


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