When the Devils traded Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri to the Islanders, a fairly large hole was left in the forward corps. Not only was that the entire veteran leadership in the unit, but also it opened up two holes in the roster — an all-situation depth center, and a top-line winger and powerplay triggerman.
John discussed on Monday what options the Devils have for filling in the top-6 center role — they include some within-organization solutions like Jesper Boqvist or moving a winger like Zacha/Sharangovich; as well as out-of-organization fill-ins like Tyler Bozak and Ryan Donato. As of this writing, no such moves have been made.
Meanwhile, the Palmieri opening was debatably filled by some combination of Yegor Sharangovich and Pavel Zacha — both of whom served as the primary shooters on their respective lines in the top 6. But, the fact that they’ve played up in the lineup has made the bottom of the lineup even shallower. And if either is to fill in as a center in the bottom six, it opens up an even more glaring hole to be filled.
That’s where Tatar comes in.
Kyle Palmieri is a 30-year-old who had scored between 20 and 30 goals each of the last 5 seasons. Tomas Tatar is a 30-year-old with between 20 and 30 goals in each of the last 6 seasons. Palmeri has a shooting talent of 18% above league average, and Tatar sits at 11% above average — though both underachieved this year in terms of shooting. Palmieri’s superior historical shooting and top-line pedigree will likely make him more valuable in that respect, but Tatar has something Palmieri did not in terms of tilting the ice. His offensive impacts are among the very best in the NHL.
This strength of his makes him not only a valid replacement for Palmieri, but perhaps an even more appropriate version for the Lindy Ruff Devils. The Canadiens journey to the Stanley Cup was shocking to many, but it’s worth pointing out that, over the past 3 seasons, Montreal is the 3rd best team in the NHL in 5v5 shot share (score/venue adjusted). And, in those 3 seasons, no one had a more substantial impact on the shot share than Tatar.
The Devils, as bad as they were, were actually above average in terms of shot share this season, led by possession phenom, Jack Hughes. Hughes dragged a line of two surprising, but unspectacular rookie wingers to a 58% shot share.
And, as encouraging as the Sharangovich-Kuokkanen winger pairing felt alongside Hughes, it seems unlikely that this team will go far with that as two-thirds of their top line. But the presence of Tatar gives them plenty more options with how to approach their top 9.
A Tatar-Sharangovich winger combo for Jack is a possession-dominant line with two strong finishers and Kuokkanen could serve as a 3rd line playmaker, perhaps joining Andreas Johnsson in maintaining dangerous possession and hoping the probability Gods look more kindly on them this season.
Another option would be to go Tatar-Hughes-Kuokkanen — a combination would play keep-away as well as any line in the NHL, and use Sharangovich as the missing 3rd line center.
And a 3rd option could be to use the Kuokkanen-Sharangovich pairing as the 3rd line wingers, and letting the training camp iron out who gets to play alongside Tatar and Hughes on a line that will spend the majority of their time with the puck. If someone like Graeme Clarke or Alex Holtz can prove their worth in camp then they will have an opportunity to start their career in a perfect situation to take advantage of their shot. If they don’t prove themselves, the staff can fall back on someone like Andreas Johnsson who has been a viable top 6 plug-in in the past.
So, while Tatar does potentially upset the confidently assembled top 6 many fans had penciled in to start 2021 (Sharangovich-Hughes-Kuokkanen, Zacha-Hischier-Bratt), he actually opens up a plethora of other opportunities by virtue of being an impactful and reliable 5v5 producer. It’s also important to remember that, for young teams like this, the lineup is going to be in a constant state of flux, so you’ll want talent wherever you can get it. This is something Palmieri can attest to as a consistent top line RW that saw everything around him change in his half-decade in that role.
Tatar inherits this role Palms carved out and will aim to map it onto the modern era of the Devils. Here’s hoping that this incarnation will see a little more success.