The New Jersey Devils’ quest for a top-six winger came to fruition yesterday afternoon. A week after the free-agent market opened up, the team announced they had signed Tomas Tatar to a two-year deal at an average annual value of $4.5 million. He finished this past season with 30 points in 50 games — a 49-point pace over 82 games — as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
Tatar may have been a healthy scratch for a majority of the Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. But his regular-season results since the start of the 2018-19 campaign rank among the best for NHL forwards. He might not put up some of the gaudy numbers he did with the Canadiens as a part of the Devils. Still, he should provide a much-needed upgrade to their top six before the puck drops on the 2021-22 season.
Tatar Does a Bit of Everything at a High Level
Though Tatar has struggled in the playoffs over his previous few appearances, he’s been highly productive during the regular season. He’s totaled 57 goals and 149 points in his last 198 games — an average of 24 goals and 62 points per 82 games. He’s also been one of the league’s most efficient five-on-five scorers, averaging 2.49 points per 60 minutes. That ranks 19th-best in the league among forwards over the last three seasons (min. 1000 minutes played), so he’s going to give the Devils’ top six a big boost of offensive firepower.
But Tatar’s production is only the beginning of what he has to offer. His five-on-five on-ice stats have been silly good since he joined the Canadiens in 2018. His Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 59.4 percent ranks second-best in the league among forwards behind teammate Brendan Gallagher. Meanwhile, his expected goals percentage (xG%) of 59.8 percent ranks first. And as you may have guessed, he’s had a substantial positive two-way impact at even strength, specifically on offense:
A big reason for Tatar’s success in Montreal had to do with his linemates, Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault. That trio played over 1500 minutes together at five-on-five, and their results were nothing short of superb. The Canadiens had a CF% of 61.4 percent and xG% of 62.3 percent with them on the ice. No, those are not typos. The Canadiens ran teams out of the rink with that unit.
But even when Tatar did not log ice time with Danault or Gallagher, his on-ice results were still quite good. Both his CF% and xG% came in at 54.6 percent, so it’s not like his play fell off a cliff without Gallagher or Danault. His linemates didn’t carry him, and he showed that he could drive play, which is a positive sign. Fortunately, he’s going to be playing with some skill and pretty good play-drivers in New Jersey. I’d expect his five-on-five numbers to be pretty strong once again, though maybe not to the levels they were with the Canadiens.
And even though Tatar isn’t the fastest skater, he’s still quite effective in transition. The Devils already have some forwards that excel in that area, namely Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. You could probably argue Yegor Sharangovich as well. Add Tatar to the mix, and the Devils’ top six should succeed in head coach Lindy Ruff’s rush-based system.
While we’re still in the stats-heavy part of this article, it’s worth mentioning Tatar’s playoff struggles. He’s played in 23 postseason games since 2017-18 but has totaled only five points. That might seem concerning, but I honestly wouldn’t be too worried.
Tatar has a CF% of 57.8 percent and xG% of 56.1 percent across those playoff games. The reason he can’t find the scoresheet is that no one can put the puck in the back of the net when he’s on the ice. His on-ice shooting percentage — not his individual shooting percentage — is 4.9 percent in the playoffs since 2017-18. That’s unsustainably low and is bound to improve if he’s playing postseason hockey with the Devils. But the most important thing, for now, is that he should very much help the Devils get closer to playoff contention.
Devils’ Lines Have Flexibility With Tatar
We got a glimpse of how Ruff wants the Devils to play during his first season with the team. With Hughes on the rise and Hischier hopefully at full health, the pieces are starting to fall into place. The question now is, where does Tatar fit best in the Devils’ top six? With Hischier or Hughes? I think there are arguments for both.
Hughes is elite in transition. Unless he has absolutely no other choice, he’s not going to dump the puck in to gain the offensive zone. While Tatar is not at the level that Hughes is in transition (not too many are), he’s good enough to hang on a line with Hughes. Tatar is a high-end playmaker, so having a shooter like Sharangovich alongside them is probably a good idea. Here’s what the Devils’ lines could look like if that’s the case:
- Sharangovich – Hughes – Tatar
- Pavel Zacha – Hischier – Jesper Bratt
- Andreas Johnsson – Jesper Boqvist – Janne Kuokkanen
- Miles Wood – Michael McLeod – Fabian Zetterlund
Don’t worry too much about the bottom six now because that’s still a work in progress. With that said, having Johnsson and Kuokkanen on the third line is a sign of strengthening depth. Kuokkanen played well last season and seems like he belongs somewhere in the Devils’ middle six. Adding Tatar allows Ruff to consider that as an option to give his forward lines some balance.
If Tatar doesn’t play alongside Hughes, he will almost certainly end up on a line with Hischier. There are multiple options to consider with Hischier and Tatar, but here’s one possibility:
- Sharangovich – Hughes – Bratt
- Zacha – Hischier – Tatar
- Johnsson – Boqvist – Kuokkanen
- Wood – McLeod – Zetterlund
Zacha may have his flaws, but he produced a 26-goal, 57-point pace last season. His shot and chance generation improved, so if he can continue that, he’s a good option to have on a line as a shooter with Tatar and Hischier. He needs to be on a line with forwards who can drive play, which is one of Tatar’s best assets, and the same is true of Hischier when he’s healthy.
This is the beauty of adding someone like Tatar, though. He does plenty of things well and should be a force at five-on-five whether he’s on the first or second line. He can play either wing, so Ruff will have plenty of possibilities to figure out the right line combinations. Having that kind of flexibility to tinker with his lineup is not something he had much of in 2020-21.
Tatar’s Contract Right on Value
While signing Tatar at a cap hit of $4.5 million might seem a bit pricey, especially since he barely played in the playoffs, the Devils got fair value for him. On a two-year deal, Evolving-Hockey predicted Tatar to end up with a cap hit of $4.468 million. The Devils didn’t overpay for him, and if anything, you can argue they got him for cheaper than they should’ve based on his results over the last three seasons.
There also aren’t many salary cap implications to the Devils signing Tatar. Even after adding $4.5 million to their books, they still have $14,742,765 in cap space, with Kuokkanen being the only restricted free agent they have to sign. Rumors about the Devils’ interest in Vladimir Tarasenko keep circulating, so they could still make that move happen, especially if the Blues are willing to retain salary.
And since Tatar is under contract for only two years, the Devils won’t be in a long-term bind once they have to start paying some of their younger players larger contracts over the next couple of offseasons. That’s the right way to approach a free-agent signing like Tatar, so general manager Tom Fitzgerald deserves credit for it.
All in all, there wasn’t a much better fit for the Devils than Tatar on the free-agent market. He’s a very good five-on-five winger who has the production to back it up. They didn’t make a long-term commitment to him, so they’re not going to have any cap trouble. And most importantly, he’s going to be a tremendous help to either Hischier or Hughes. That’s something the Devils have needed over the last two seasons, and they should feel the impacts right away.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017