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“Uncle Nate” has a new family.
Nate Thompson, who was one of the most popular players in the Canadiens’ locker room and took rookie Nick Suzuki under his wing earlier this season, is now a Philadelphia Flyer and will be playing against his old teammates in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
With the Canadiens expected to miss the playoffs, GM Marc Bergevin dealt Thompson to the Flyers ahead of the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline in exchange for a fifth-round pick at the 2021 NHL Draft. In 63 games with the Canadiens this season, the veteran centre had 4-10-14 totals and was minus-2 while winning 55.1 per cent of his faceoffs. With the Flyers, Thompson had 0-1-1 totals in seven games and was plus-1 while winning 53.7 per cent of his faceoffs. In the round-robin portion of these COVID-19 NHL playoffs, Thompson scored a highlight-reel goal against the Boston Bruins while the Flyers posted a perfect 3-0 record to earn the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Thompson could play a big role for the Flyers in this playoff series against the Canadiens — which begins Wednesday in Toronto (8 p.m., CBC, SN, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio) — not only as a fourth-line centre, but also because he knows the Canadiens players and their system so well.
“I think first of all, having Nate — a veteran player that is such a pro in the way he prepares himself, the way he competes, the way he is with his teammates, a real good teammate — that’s his first and foremost value with him,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said during a video conference Monday.
“He comes to play and he plays hard. Obviously, in our preparation for the Montreal Canadiens we did pick his brain on what we saw on video,” Vigneault added. “I’m not going to go into length in what he shared with us — obviously, that stays internal. But there’s no doubt that he’s been here a short amount of time, but he’s been a real valuable player as far as bringing his game to the table every night and helping our group. And in this preparation for Montreal, there’s no doubt that we did ask him a few questions.”
When Thompson was asked how much of a benefit his inside knowledge of the Canadiens might be, he said: “I don’t know. Teams do so much video and the coaches are so prepared, especially at this time. I think we just have to worry about us and for me nothing changes. My game is the same. I go out there and do things I do. Like (teammate Claude Giroux) said, we have to be ready. I do think that our team can get a little better. I think we had a good round-robin, but I think there’s a little bit more there. So hopefully we can bring that against a really good team.
“They’re a team that works,” Thompson added about the Canadiens. “They work extremely hard. They play a high-speed game and then you have Carey Price at the back end there as their backbone. They’re the real deal. They beat Pittsburgh (in the qualifying round) for a reason. They have a good team and we have to make sure we’re ready.”
The impact Thompson had in the Canadiens’ locker room continues to pay dividends, especially in the case of Suzuki, who started his rookie season as a fourth-line winger beside the veteran centre. Suzuki is now the Canadiens’ second-line centre and played a key role at both ends of the rink in the Canadiens’ upset victory over the Penguins in the qualifying round.
“Off the ice, he’s been awesome,” Suzuki said about Thompson earlier this season when they were teammates. “On the ice, he’s been awesome. He’s always the guy that comes up and checks on me, just trying to help me out as much as he can. We’re always talking on the bench, on the ice. In practice, we go over some details in the D zone together. He’s been around a lot and he has a ton of wisdom. He’s been a great guy, too. He’s really smart. He knows exactly where to be on the ice. He’s been around the league so long. He knows the ins and outs of the game and just to be able to see him every day, his habits on and off the ice, is something I’m really learning from.”
Thompson admitted it will be a “little weird” playing against Suzuki, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Monday, and 20-year-old Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who also played a key role against the Penguins.
“But at this time of year and in the playoffs there’s no friends out there,” Thompson said. “They’re both very good young players. You saw it against Pittsburgh. They were a huge factor in that series and I’ve said it before: they’re going to have long NHL careers. They can be very good players for that team, but we have to make sure that we play them hard, like they’re going to do the same with us.”
Now, it’s the Flyers who can call Thompson “Uncle Nate.”
“In the room, he’s an OK guy,” Giroux said with a sly grin Monday when asked about Thompson. “On the ice, he just battles every shift. I mean, he doesn’t take a shift off, he doesn’t take a practice off, he’s always ready to go. He’s been in the league for a while. He just knows how to be every day and when you have a guy coming in like that you can see the younger guys kind of follow.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020