BOSTON – The guys on the team call him “Nate Boucher” and coach Guy Boucher, his would-be on-ice dad, calls him “Textbook.”
That tells you why 2 ½ years after the Bruins lost Nate Thompson to the New York Islanders via the waiver wire, Boston head coach Claude Julien still looks upon the center with admiration.
“Well to me I think he’s developed into the player that we thought he would be,” Julien said earlier this week about Thompson, who should be in his usual spot as Tampa Bay’s fourth-line center when the Eastern Conference Final between the Bruins and Lightning opens tonight at the TD Garden.
“He’s always been a hard-working, dedicated individual. He was a great person as well. And there wasn’t much to not like about Nate. And for me personally, I’m happy he’s found a place to play … And although you compete against each other, there’s certain times where you got to look at the individual and say I’m glad he got rewarded for all his hard work and that’s certainly what I think about Nate.”
Bruins forward Shawn Thornton liked Thompson enough to let him stay at his house during that 2008 training camp, when the Bruins ultimately lost Thompson and kept the likes of Stephane Yelle and Petteri Nokelainen with the big club. Thompson had been a sixth-round pick of Boston in 2003 and skated in just four NHL games for the Bruins in 2006-07.
As he gets ready to face his former team one round shy of the Cup final, Thompson says he holds no grudge toward the Black and Gold.
“I’m not really worried about that too much. It’s a business,” said Thompson after the Lightning’s morning skate. “It’s pretty cool that I get to play against the team that drafted me and I was a part of for the better part of three years. It’s exciting to play against them, but at the same time I’m not really worried about that other stuff. I’m just focusing on our team and how we’re playing.”
The Lightning are playing great, partly because of the contributions of the likes of Thompson. You expect him to take an errant stick to the face and lose a tooth like he did against Washington (the gap in front of his mouth is huge), but you might not expect him to have three assists through 11 playoff games. Nor might you expect fellow bottom-six forwards Sean Bergenheim (seven goals) and Steve Downie (12 points) to put up points at such an impressive pace.
Tampa Bay has been the definition of a balanced attack throughout its seven-game win over Pittsburgh and its four-game sweep of the Capitals. That’s why Thompson has been such a perfect fit.
“I think just coming in here, it was new management, a new coaching staff, so I just wanted to make sure I made a good first impression,” he said. “I tried to do that and they gave me a great opportunity, and I just tried to make the most of it.”
Thompson really would’ve been a perfect fit for Boston had the Collective Bargaining Agreement not interfered with its pesky salary cap and waiver rules. Part of Thompson’s “black-and-blue” style comes from his Alaska upbringing and some it was nurtured by the Boston brass. Thompson credits Julien, Bruins assistant coach Doug Houda, assistant general manager Don Sweeney and former Providence (AHL) coaches Scott Gordon and Rob Murray for making a huge impact on his development.
He topped out in the Boston organization with 19-20-39 totals in 75 games for the P-Bruins in 2007-08. This year with Tampa Bay, he finished with 10-15-25 totals in 79 games.
“I call him ‘Textbook,’ because when you deal with him, you’re going to get exactly what you ask. That’s rare,” said Boucher, the first-year Tampa Bay head coach. “Since I’ve called him that, the guys put a sign in his locker, ‘Nate Boucher.’ That’s why I want to go on about him, but I have to watch out.
“He’s certainly been a huge part of our team. If you watched the first two series, I know other names have come up, but our penalty kill has come up [big] … him and [Adam] Hall have been tremendous on it. They block all the shots. He’s going to take it in the face if he has to, and not everybody is going to do that.”
The Bruins might not be singing Thompson’s praises by the time this series is over. The 26-year-old’s game is meant to make life as difficult as possible on the opposition.
Before the battle began, however, it was easy for Thornton to fondly recall Thompson’s stint with the Bruins and express pride that a fellow blue-collar worker has carved out a niche in the NHL.
“I’m very happy to see he’s had the success that he’s had playing in Tampa,” said Thornton. “I’m happy somebody that works that hard and is such a good person has made it.”
Guy Boucher and the Lightning are happy Thompson’s made it too. And they hope he continues to make the Bruins regret their waiver-wire decision.