The Devils will have a number of tough decisions to make this summer with pending UFAs as they seek to bridge the gap between the present and future at a number of positions. This will be particularly true with their pending free agent defensemen, but at the forward position, one of the trickier decisions will be what to do with Tomas Tatar. The Devils have some big negotiations underway with their two top RFAs Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier, so the progress of those may dictate what they are able to spend elsewhere. After a mixed bag of a two-year deal that is now expiring, lets look at Tomas Tatar and how he could fit into the Devils’ plans.
Who is Tomas Tatar?
Tatar is a winger who will be entering his 13th NHL season in the fall. He has been a solid scoring forward for most of his time in the NHL and also a generally underrated two-way presence. Tatar spent his first 7 NHL seasons in Detroit with the Red Wings, who drafted him late in the second round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Tatar is from Slovakia and played his pre-draft hockey there from juniors up to the top professional men’s league in the country, where he played in his draft year. After drafting him 60th overall, the Red Wings brought him straight over the North America, where he played with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. Tatar immediately performed well with Grand Rapids, and earned a call-up to Detroit in his second season, but with Detroit still near the height of their Zetterberg/Datsyuk era powers, they could afford to be patient and it would be several years before he stuck in the NHL for good.
Tatar was a key part of several Detroit teams in his time there. He came along around the same time as Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader, and while they were solid enough players, they weren’t quite at the level to become the torch-bearers for the Wings as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk entered the twilight of their careers. After three first round exists in 2014, 2015, and 2016, the Red Wings 25-year run of postseason appearances would come to a close in 2017. Tatar got moved to Vegas at the trade deadline in 2018, as Detroit began to tear things down in preparation for a full-scale rebuild.
Tatar’s time in Vegas was short, and didn’t go particularly well. Vegas has unloaded a first, second, and third round pick to get him, but Tatar would only amass eight total points in his 28 regular season and postseason games in Vegas. Tatar was immediately traded that summer, along with Nick Suzuki and a second rounder in a package to get Max Pacioretty from Montreal. Tatar would go on to have a reasonably successful run in Montreal, albeit on some relatively mediocre Habs teams. Tatar was as solid as ever in the regular season, including comfortably leading the 2019-20 version of the team in scoring. A trend of postseason struggles (which started in Vegas) began to emerge in these years for Tatar, though. Tatar’s run in Montreal ended rather unceremoniously, as he found himself scratched for most of their 2021 out-of-nowhere run to the finals, despite being the Habs fourth-leading scorer that season. He’d become a free agent in the summer of 2021, looking for a new start.
What Has Tatar Done as a Devil?
The Devils would sign Tatar in the summer of 2021 to a two-year, $4.5M AAV deal. Tatar arrived in New Jersey in the same summer as the Devils signed their blockbuster deal with Dougie Hamilton, as the Devils tried to break out of their long rebuild. It wouldn’t work out so well for the Devils or Tatar in the first year he was here. Tatar would have a disappointing individual season, as he never really got going and finished the year with just 30 points over 76 games. The Devils, meanwhile, would have one of their most disastrous campaigns ever, as they finished with 63 points.
Tatar’s play wasn’t necessarily terrible for the Devils in 2021-22, but he just did not have the impact the team was hoping for when they brought him in. He gave little in the way of an offensive spark at even strength, and was part of a generally catastrophic Devils power play unit. Tatar had signed for two years, but it was unclear if he would be back in Newark based on his underwhelming first year.
He did end up sticking around, though, and it was a good result for both him and the Devils. He upped his scoring output, putting up 20 goals and 48 points in 82 games, and he had one of the best statistical impacts of any Devil, putting up hard-to-fathom numbers for a player not generally perceived as an elite talent. Whether there was some misattribution of credit for Tatar’s impacts or not, it’s hard to argue the fact that the Devils were absolutely crushing opponents in 2022-23 with him on the ice. New Jersey outscored their opponents 61-28 with Tatar on the ice at 5v5, and Tatar’s +33 goal differential at full strength was well clear of the second-best margin on the Devils (Dougie Hamilton’s +24). His isolated xG impacts from HockeyViz looked like this:
While I’m not sure “maybe the best two-way player in the league” is an accurate picture of what Tatar brought this regular season, it’s hard to deny that he played very well, generally speaking, and he served as a great compliment to Nico Hischier on Hischier’s line for much of the season.
Despite the really good regular season he put up, the postseason was again a struggle for Tatar, though. In 12 games, Tatar put up just a single goal and no assists. The lone goal was a big one, as he finished off a great John Marino play to make it 2-0 in the Devils’ game seven against the Rangers. That would be it for his playoff production, though. And unlike players like Timo Meier, or Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier, Tatar couldn’t really chalk his struggles up to poor luck or being snakebitten. No, Tatar’s performance was pretty rough across the board, with relatively poor underlying numbers, just 15 shots in 12 games, and the lowest individual expected goals of any regular Devils forward. It’s tough to put too much emphasis on a 12-game sample, but it put a damper on what was an otherwise strong season for Tatar.
What Will Tatar Do Going Forward?
Overall, it was a good rebound season for Tatar, and you’d have to say he was worth the salary in year two of his deal. The postseason struggles are a concern, but Tatar was a key complimentary piece for a franchise-record-setting Devils team. As a player entering his mid-thirties (he’ll be 33 in December), though, decline is likely on the way at some point, and any team looking to pick him up will have to be weary of that fact. I think Tatar has more good hockey in him, but realistically, he’s at the point in his career where you can’t give out too much in term.
Tatar put up a little under 0.6 points per game this past season, and I think you can probably expect him to be a player who hovers in the neighborhood of a half point per game over the next few years. He’s been a generally good two-way player in his career, putting up largely excellent on-ice numbers, so I would expect him to continue to be a solid complementary/depth forward over the coming seasons, As a non-elite player in his thirties, though, the decline can come swiftly for a player in this category.
What Does a Possible Tatar Contract Look Like?
I think the Devils should be interested in at least discussing a return with Tatar. Any player in a spot like Tatar, though, teams should be very cautious giving much term to. I really don’t think I’d be willing to go over two years with Tatar, considering the outlook for the team in terms of when other guys will be due contracts. The Devils have some flexibility for now and they will need to maintain it as guys like Dawson Mercer, Luke Hughes, and others are due contracts.
I don’t know whether I’d re-up Tatar at the same salary of $4.5M either. I think he was worth it this past year, but year one of the contract was mostly a dud, so the salary should probably take a step back in his age 33 season. I think something like a 1-year, $4+M deal probably makes the most sense for everyone. If Tatar will take a bit less, then I think the Devils can potentially think about adding a second year onto the contract. I will say that the ongoing postseason struggles are a bit of a concern for a team like the Devils that is seeing their window open now, but hockey is a fickle sport and I don’t know that I see anything specific in Tatar’s game that shouldn’t work, come the playoffs.
Of course, if Tatar thinks he can get more from another team outside of New Jersey, he could always test the waters of free agency. The cap situation remains pretty tight around the league, but this looks like a pretty light free agent class this summer, so it could represent an opportunity for veteran guys like Tatar to cash in. It’s possible Tatar moving on ends up best for everyone, but I really did like what he brought this season and would be in favor of him being back in black and red for the right price/term. We will see how it plays out in the coming months.
I think the Devils could be fine moving on from Tatar, but he was also a very solid contributor for them, so in the absence of a leap from Alex Holtz or another prospect more on the periphery, they could miss his contributions. As a team with a lot of players they will have to pay in the coming years, though, they have to do their best to maintain flexibility. I think there’s a deal there, but it will depend on how hard either the Devils or Tatar will want to push.