To say Tomas Tatar had a rough first year as a New Jersey Devil would be an understatement.
Tatar was the Devils big free agent signing at forward prior to the 2021-22 season, inking a two year deal worth $4.5M AAV. Unfortunately, he mostly looked out of place during his first season in New Jersey. He struggled to develop chemistry with anyone while playing all over the Top 9 and posted a measly 30 points in 76 games. This was not the free agency splash the Devils or Devils fans were expecting, which led to several debates like this one from Gerard late last season on whether the Devils should try to trade the veteran forward.
Thankfully, Tatar has been one of the more pleasant surprises in the early portion of the 2022-23 season....a season that has already been chock-full of pleasant surprises including good goaltending, strong defensive play, and a ten-game winning streak after last night’s win in Montreal.
Since the Devils lost Ondrej Palat to injury, Tatar has been elevated to the top line left-wing role, playing alongside Nico Hischier and Fabian Zetterlund. His seven-game point streak came to an end last night in Montreal after his third period goal was overturned on an offsides challenge, but that doesn’t diminish how well that line has played in general. Alex pondered before the season if we could expect positive regression from Tatar, and its safe to say that so far, we’ve seen that.
It would be easy to point to the fact that he’s primarily playing on a line with Nico Hischier, who has been the Devils best forward overall this season. It’s true that no forward played more with Tatar this season than Hischier, but that was also true last year as well. I do think there might be a bit of a residual effect with Hischier elevating his game to another level, as the captain is currently is on pace to establish career highs in CF%, xG%, HDCF%, goals, assists, points, and ice time. As a result, I could buy the argument that Tatar was been one of the main beneficiaries of that. But I don’t think it can be entirely attributed to that.
Alex pointed out a few factors in his story that I think are worth revisiting. Tatar’s 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage was 6.8% and his PDO was 0.962 last season, both career lows over a full season. Those numbers have jumped up to 10.49% and 1.027 prior to last night’s game. The biggest jump in his advanced stats has been in GF%, going from 39.77% to 75%. I already mentioned how Tatar played the most with Hischier last season, but Dawson Mercer (GF% with 32.26%), Pavel Zacha (37.04%), and Andreas Johnsson (47.62%) were his next most common linemates. One thing those three forwards all have in common is that they all had prolonged stretches last season where none of them could put the puck in the back of the net. Two of those three players are effectively no longer on the Devils, and the other was a 19-year old rookie in his first full NHL season....a rookie who struggled when he wasn’t playing on a line with Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, or Jesper Bratt. It’s not just about who Tatar is playing with, but it’s also about who he’s not playing with thus far in 2022-23.
This is also where I would point out that we’re dealing with a relatively small sample size in 2022-23 in general (15 games vs. a full 82 game season), but even acknowledging that, the early returns this season are promising.
Some of it might be a little bit of luck, sure. The goal he scored against Ottawa, for example, probably had no business going in, as it redirected off of a body in front. It did, though. I’m a big believer in how you need to create your own luck and your own fortuitous bounces. Watching Tatar, I see a player comfortable in being able to get to the net and get to areas of the ice where he can get a clean shot off and potentially make a play. Tatar’s shot is dangerous enough where if opposing defenses lose track of him, he’s capable of making them pay like he did against Arizona.
None of this should be all that surprising though. Unlike most of the forwards on the Devils, Tatar entered the season with nearly 700 games of NHL experience. Tatar had a long history of being able to put the puck in the back of the net as he’s done in his previous stops in Detroit, Montreal, and to a lesser extent, Vegas. We’re talking about a guy who had multiple 55+ point campaigns. Most players don’t just lose it at the age of 31. The signs were there to suggest that he was a bit snakebit last season and would positively regress closer to the player he’s always been, and so far through the early portion of the 2022-23 season, he’s done exactly that.
I wouldn’t go crazy and suggest Tatar’s game doesn’t have blemishes. We’ve seen from time to time that he’s prone to a poorly timed penalty or a bad pinch, and those mistakes tend to wind up in the back of the Devils own net. Those plays will happen. We’ve seen Tatar healthy scratched in big games in previous stops, likely for the same reasons other players get healthy scratched (compete level, doesn’t forecheck/backcheck enough, etc). We’ve even seen some plays like forgetting to get back onside last night that cost him a goal. I also wouldn’t go as far as to suggest the Devils should sign Tatar to a contract extension when most Devils fans were ready to run him out of town after last season.
Fortunately for the Devils though, Tatar has been closer to the forward the team thought they were getting when they signed him in the summer of 2021. Maybe Tatar’s stats this season aren’t entirely sustainable either (although his 9.1% shooting percentage is below his career norm and has room to improve). But the Devils line of Tatar-Hischier-Zetterlund has consistently been the Devils best line through the early portion of the season. I see little reason to break it up anytime soon, and if the Devils do, it’ll likely be to replace Zetterlund with Bratt and not Tatar with Sharangovich. Palat is going to continue to be out for several more months, and Tatar has done a good job filling his spot in the Top Six.
You’ve heard from me, and its time to hear from you. Are you surprised that Tatar has had a bounceback campaign, or did you believe all along? Should the Devils continue to keep him exactly where he is? If Tatar keeps this up, would you have any interest in bringing him back for another season? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading!