Thompson enjoying success with the Golden Knights after a long road to the NHL

After winning the Cup in 2018, the Washington Capitals brought it to their practice facility during their development camp that offseason. Thompson, a then 21-year-old goalie who was invited to the camp as an undrafted free agent, watched Washington’s prospects take an up-close look but opted to do his admiring from afar.

“I was just a nobody invite,” Thompson said. “So, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and then walked away.”

Four years later, Thompson is no longer a nobody. The 25-year-old rookie is the No. 1 goalie for the Vegas Golden Knights, coincidentally, the team the Capitals defeated in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. On Tuesday, he made 19 saves against Washington in a 3-2 overtime victory at Capital One Arena.

Pouncing on an opportunity created by injuries to Robin Lehner and Laurent BrossoitThompson is 6-2-0 with a 2.01 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and two shutouts in eight games, helping Vegas to a 10-2-0 start under first-year coach Bruce Cassidy.

“I think as a whole team it’s been the start we wanted,” Thompson said. “It took us a little bit to catch onto the new system, but since then our team game has improved pretty significantly from last year. Me being a goalie, it’s just how things have changed and how much easier my game has been.”

Thompson credits Vegas’ style of play, which pressures opponents in the offensive zone and keeps them to the outside in the defensive zone, for much of his early-season success. But he’s done his share with timely saves, like when the Golden Knights were outshot 11-8 in the second period Tuesday but allowed one goal in that span.

“He’s been fantastic,” said the defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored 1:35 into overtime Tuesday. “A lot of times he’s been standing on his head on some Grade A chances that we give up. It’s always nice that he has our back and we’re comfortable with him back there.”

Goaltending was Vegas’ biggest question mark heading into this season after it was learned in August that Lehner would miss the season following hip surgery. With Brossoit also recovering from hip surgery, Thompson was the default No. 1 to begin the season.

Thompson played in 19 NHL games in the second half of last season, going 10-5-3 with a 2.68 GAA, .914 save percentage and one shutout. But it was unclear if he could handle a No. 1 goalie workload, so Vegas acquired Adina Hill in a trade with the San Jose Sharks on Aug. 30 for support.

Video: [email protected]: Thompson stops all 29 shots in 4-0 victory

Hill is also off to a strong start (4-0-0, 1.72 GAA and .940 save percentage), but the No. 1 job appears to be Thompson’s to lose, even with Brossoit nearing his return after beginning a conditioning loan to Henderson of the American Hockey League on Monday.

“You see all that noise and what every expert and data analyst had to say about me, and it definitely just motivates me to keep doing what I’ve been doing and prove people wrong,” Thompson said. “But it’s a lot of fun for me playing hockey every day.”

That approach served Thompson well since being undrafted despite a solid major junior career with Brandon of the Western Hockey League, Vegas first gave him a look as an invite to the expansion team’s inaugural development and rookie camps in 2017 but opted not to sign him.

Following his final season with Brandon in 2017-18, Thompson was invited to the Capitals development and rookie camps. That was when he met Capitals goalie coach Scott Murray and their minor league goalie coach Alex Westlund (now the Detroit Red Wings goalie coach).

“Realistically, I don’t think I would be here today if it wasn’t for those two,” Thompson said.

But Washington had six goalies under contract at the time and no room to sign Thompson. After failing to find an ECHL team to take him, Thompson headed to Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario to study sports management.

“I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to have some fun, be a college kid and go party and just be a kid again,'” Thompson said. “Luckily, we had a pretty good hockey program at Brock. (Coach) Marty Williamson put together a pretty good team that year, so we were winning games and I was having a lot of fun and I wasn’t thinking about the NHL or anything like that.”

After going 18-6-0 with a 2.22 GAA, .934 save percentage and three shutouts at Brock, Thompson was voted the Ontario University Athletics goalie of the year and rookie of the year. That led to an amateur tryout contract with Adirondack, the ECHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, after his college season was over.

Thompson played eight games with Adirondack (2-4-1, 2.72 GAA, .918 save percentage) and one with Binghamton in the AHL (22 saves in a 5-2 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) and was let go again before signing his first professional contract with Hershey, the Capitals AHL affiliate.

Thompson spent the 2019-20 season with South Carolina in the ECHL sharing the net with minor league veteran Parker Milner. In Thompson, Milner saw raw skill, size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) and athleticism. Murray and Westlund helped Thompson harness those assets by honing his technical play.

What impressed Milner most, though, was Thompson’s work ethic and mental toughness.

“The ECHL is just a really good training ground,” Milner said. “It tests you mentally. The schedule in brutal. He was backing me up and a lot of times following me up on the second night of a back to back. He wouldn’t be the first one to fall behind, pretty easily that can happen, and he just had that mental fortitude and compete level to, rather than back down from those challenges, really step up and play even better during them.

“To me, that’s the biggest thing that separates guys and can get them to the next level.”

Thompson was 23-8-1 with a 2.25 GAA, .929 save percentage and three shutouts in 32 games in 2019-20 before the ECHL season was ended by the coronavirus pandemic. But his play rekindled the interest of the Golden Knights and general manager Kelly McCrimmon, the coach and GM during Thompson’s first two seasons with Brandon. They signed him to a two-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2020.

Thompson was 16-6-1 with a 1.96 GAA, .943 save percentage and two shutouts in 23 games with Henderson to win the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goalie in 2020-21. He also made his NHL debut with Vegas in a relief appearance against the Minnesota Wild on March 10, 2021.

A larger NHL opportunity came in the second half of last season. Although the injury-riddled Golden Knights failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that experience, and playing for Canada at the 2022 IIHF World Championship in Finland, fueled Thompson’s belief that he belongs in the NHL.

“I didn’t see him play last year other than in a movie in the summer, but what impressed me was his confidence,” Cassidy said. “He’s got some swagger in the net. He’s a good athlete there, yet he’s still composed and, for a young guy, has good technical merit in his game.”

Thompson acknowledges that his ascent has been rapid since signing his first pro contract three years ago. But after struggling before that to find a place to play, he isn’t taking for granted having one with Vegas.

Maybe it will eventually lead to him being in the same room with the Stanley Cup again.

“It [stinks] when you don’t get drafted or you always get told you’re not good enough,” Thompson said. “You have to use that as motivation. There’s tons of skilled hockey players out there, but you definitely have to put in the work and that’s one thing I’m happy with, how hard I worked.

“And I’m not going to stop.”

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