BenFred: Blues top prospect hungry for NHL debut

This Saturday evening, Tage Thompson will arrive at a sports memorabilia store in Chesterfield for his first-ever public autograph signing.

Let that sink in for a second.

Thompson is 19 years old, and he looks like it. His 6-foot-5 frame holds just 200 pounds. He couldn’t grow a playoff beard if he tried — unless a few blond whiskers count. His next game in the NHL will be the forward’s first.

Yet complete strangers will spend their hard-earned money so they can line up to shake his hand and take home his signature.

“Hopefully I’m not too nervous,” Thompson admitted Wednesday, before he took the ice for the first of a four-day Blues prospects camp.

The thought of mingling with his growing fan base stirs some butterflies. Switch the conversation to an offseason that could expedite his NHL debut, and Thompson’s tone shifts.

The Blues’ top pick in 2016, 26th overall, has every intention of making a $10 autograph look like a bargain. He is not timid about his plans to shed his prospect label this summer. Those who will attend Saturday’s signing expect big things from Thompson one day. He’s asking, why wait?

“There are probably people who think I’m not ready,” Thompson said. “Maybe two, three, four more years. But what if I think I’m ready? Who’s to say I can’t? It’s all up to me, and obviously the staff, but a lot of it comes down to the work I put in.”

The path is no secret, thanks to fast-rising and prominently featured young Blues like Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko. Impress at prospect camp. Turn next month’s NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., into a training camp invite. Once there, convince general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Mike Yeo that talent trumps inexperience. And voila.

It’s happening more often these days. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Wednesday’s news of center Patrik Berglund’s shoulder surgery both decreased the depth ahead of the Blues’ top prospect and offered a reminder that it’s still rather crowded up front. Armstrong named more than five Blues when asked who might be expected to step up until Berglund returns. None of them was named Thompson.

That’s not to say Thompson can’t force himself into the conversation. The Blues encourage it, and they have rewarded those who have done so in the recent past.

“This is a huge summer for him,” Armstrong said.

The general manager listed some of the strengths Thompson displayed during two seasons at the University of Connecticut, where he became the highest-drafted player in program history, and during last season’s 26-game introduction to the American Hockey League.

He has size you can’t teach; a wicked shot that scored three goals for the Chicago Wolves; a reputation as a power-play sniper; a hockey IQ that comes with being a coach’s son; a competitive streak that makes Thompson, according to one teammate, stew after losing something as small as a pickup basketball game; along with an incredibly skilled set of hands that were honed before his late growth spurt.

“He’s good in tight with the puck,” said Blues defenseman prospect Jake Walman, who refers to Thompson as ‘Tommer.’ “He can make moves in tight areas that other guys can’t. With guys on him, he knows how to protect it properly. Once his strength comes, he’s going to be really hard to knock off the puck.”

For Thompson, it’s all about strength. His body shot up. Now it needs to fill out.

“Physical maturity,” Armstrong said. “Working out and getting bigger and stronger. He’s putting the time in right now. July and August are huge months for him to see what type of foundation we can continue to build for him.”

Thompson doesn’t shy from this assessment. He knows more about nutrition now than ever before. He’s eating “like it’s my second job.” And his competitive nature now flashes in the weight room. He wants to be between 210 and 215 pounds when the season starts.

“I went into college a little light,” he said. “Late maturity. It hindered my development a little bit. Or prolonged it, I should say. Going into college, that was the main reason I wanted to go there, for the physical aspect of it, getting bigger and stronger and playing against older guys. But now you leave that and you are going against men.”

There is no predetermined weight Thompson needs to hit, no lift in the weight room he must master before the Blues believe he’s ready. Coaches will look for signs in how he plays, his presence on the ice, the ground he gives, holds or takes.

“When you are doing battle drills with the bigger players, how does that transfer?” Armstrong said. “When you want to go from A to B, and someone is in your way, how far do you have to go around? Can you start going through them?”

This camp is the first test of a telling summer. It will be the easiest.

On Wednesday, Thompson effortlessly threaded pucks between his legs and around his back. His first drill of the day asked him to shoot twice in rapid-fire fashion from the top of the circle. Both pucks found the back of the net by the time the goalie flinched.

Bigger challenges await. He plans to meet each one with increased strength.

“I think I can do it,” Thompson said. “There are always going to be people who don’t think you can do it. That’s why you want it even more. Fuel to the fire. It’s been my dream to play in the NHL my whole life. Once you are close, it just eats at you.”

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