In the summer of 2021, Tomáš Tatar was one of the Devils’ big pickups that were going to help propel the team back into contention in the Eastern Conference. With the Devils landing Dougie Hamilton that summer, Tatar was seen as a quality secondary pickup that would greatly improve the team’s depth and skill at the forward position. Like many other players on the Devils, though, Tatar had an underwhelming campaign in 2021-22 and never really got going in a way that made him feel like the type of needle-moving piece people had been hoping he’d be.
Tatar finished the 2021-22 season with a paltry (for a top-six forward) 30 points in 76 games and while the underlying numbers weren’t across-the-board terrible, Tatar was outscored badly on the ice at 5v5 (-18) (raw on-ice numbers all via Natural Stat Trick) and just seemed to be along for the ride on a crummy team. Tatar looked a lot like a passenger in the on-ice numbers and he wasn’t really doing much scoring to offset that. Through one year of a two-year deal, he seemed like a free agent miss for Tom Fitzgerald.
One year later, things have changed a whole lot—for both the Devils and for Tatar. The Devils success has, of course, been well-documented on the pages of this blog, but Tatar has quietly been a critical supporting cast member for these Devils. To the extent that Tatar just kind of “there” in a bad way in his first season, now he always seems to be “there” in the best possible way. He has been a part of some of the most effective lines for the Devils this season and the Devils have been strong at both ends of the ice with Tatar out there.
For his part, Tatar has been a quiet workhorse, mixing it up in front of the net and winning board battles to keep the Devils on the front foot when he is out there. Tatar’s standard scoring numbers are improved but are still far from gaudy, and yet he’s been so adept at doing the little things for this team this year, great things are happening with him on the ice and everyone seems to get a bump from his presence. Sometimes it’s hard to suss out impacts that a player is having on his teammates, but when everyone sees their numbers get a boost from the same guy, as is the case for Tatar this season, it’s usually safe to say he is performing at a high level. This is reflected in the public models as well, where Tatar looks like an absolutely elite play driver in 2022-23 when he was very much just a guy in 2021-22. You can see this in the xG model from HockeyViz and the RAPM model from evolving hockey, which clearly show the extent to which Tatar has found his mojo this season.
It’s hard to overstate just how great Tatar has been as a play-driver this season. Yes, a vast majority of his minutes have been next to one of the Devils’ top two centers, but both Hischier and Hughes (Nico in particular) have had better results with Tatar than away from him. A lot of times, perception is driven by scoring and can be heavily influenced by a player having a good or bad run of shooting luck but that hasn’t really been what has driven the change in perception for Tatar, at least not entirely.
A close look at the base scoring numbers reveals only a marginal improvement, particularly in primary points where Tatar has only had a relatively modest uptick from the 2021-22 season. Most of his points gains have been via second assists, which aren’t really a reliable indicator. Where he has had notable gains in individual stats have been in individual expected goals and individual high danger chances, where he has posted career highs in both categories. In truth, he has honestly been a bit unlucky when it comes to his individual scoring stats, where he’s had an uncharacteristically low number of on-ice goals where he’s recorded a point (individual point percentage—or IPP—is near a career low), and he has a almost 6 more all-situations expected goals than actual goals.
For on-ice numbers, Tatar has been the beneficiary of a substantial reversal in save and shooting percentage luck, but even that fails to explain his gaudy on-ice results. No, the Devils are simply just burying teams when Tatar is playing, and the good luck that he has gotten has mainly driven the results from “dominant” to “borderline comical.”
Tatar leads the Devils in pretty much every raw on-ice statistical category this season, with his share of expected goals being aroung 63.5%. That puts him above not only his Devils teammates, but just about every other player in the league as well, aside from a handful of Carolina Hurricanes. Tatar’s good percentages have served to bump that high share of expected goals into an even higher share of actual goals, with the Devils scoring close to 70% of the goals with him on the ice at 5v5. In raw terms, Tatar is a staggering +33 in 5v5 goal differential with him on the ice. Being behind only a few Hurricanes in expected goals share and behind only a few Bruins in actual goals share means you are definitely doing something right.
The funny thing about Tatar’s resurgence this season is that the way he has been effective is not the way that I think he was perceived to bring value when he arrived here. If anything, I think he was seen as more of a peripheral player who could provide some scoring but wasn’t really much of a grinding-in-the-trenches type. This was possibly due to being a healthy scratch for much of Montreal’s out-of-nowhere 2021 playoff run and, if we’re being honest, probably also because he’s a short guy from Europe. Tatar has looked every bit like a guy willing to get down in the muck to help the team, though, and if you watch him closely, you see him making a lot of good choices on the ice that keep his team out of trouble. Put simply, Tatar has been a feisty little engine helping power the Devils all year.
Heading into this season, I think the safe bet probably would have been to expect the Devils and Tatar to part ways in the summer of 2023. After the way he has played in 2022-23, though, he looks like a guy the Devils would miss an awful lot if he departed. Rather than an along-for-the-ride, empty-calories points guy, Tatar has been a critical play-driver and important top-six fixture in support of the Devils’ star centers. In a season where a lot of things have gone right for New Jersey, few things have gone more right than the quietly stellar performance of Tomáš Tatar. Here’s hoping he can continue to play a key supporting role as the team transitions into the playoffs next week, but for now, Tatar certainly deserves recognition for what has been an under-the-radar great season.