Devils’ Tatar Has Returned to Old Self

Not every free-agent signing pays off right away. For Tomáš Tatar and the New Jersey Devils, that bears repeating. When the Devils signed Tatar to a two-year deal in August 2021, the hope was he’d help contribute to their top-six a season ago. That didn’t come to fruition, as he finished with 15 goals and 30 points in 76 games, a far cry from where he produced in his three previous seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. 

But even though Tatar struggled a season ago, there were signs that he still had something left in the tank. Twenty-three games into the Devils’ 2022-23 campaign, and he’s looked like the Tatar of old. Let’s look at his play through the quarter mark and why he could earn himself a new contract with New Jersey beyond this year. 

Tatar Back To Being a Five-on-Five Force

Over the summer, I wrote about why the Devils should expect a better Tatar in 2022-23. Even though I’ll rehash some of that post here to provide some context, I’d recommend giving the whole article a read. The gist of it is that despite Tatar struggling to put up points, he was still excelling in the things he did well in his previous three seasons with the Canadiens. 

For example, Tatar had no problem creating off the rush a season ago, specifically in generating shots and chances. Nor did his playmaking drop off, and he was still an effective puck carrier through the neutral zone. He just got a bit unlucky since his on-ice shooting percentage — the team’s shooting percentage when a player is on the ice — was the third-lowest on the Devils. 

Tomas Tatar New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils winger Tomas Tatar (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Given that he was still excelling off the rush and his on-ice shooting percentage being what it was, it made him an easy bounce-back candidate for the 2022-23 season. And from the looks of it, Tatar is back to being the player he was during his time with the Canadiens. Ahead of tonight’s tilt against the Nashville Predators, he has six goals and 15 points in 23 games — a 21-goal, 54-point pace. 

Production-wise, Tatar has been a much more efficient five-on-five scorer than he was a season ago. He averaged just 1.46 points per 60 minutes, his lowest since he split the 2017-18 campaign between the Detroit Red Wings and Vegas Golden Knights. This season, he’s averaging 2.71 points/60, the fourth-best rate on the Devils behind Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes

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While his counting totals and scoring rates are similar to his time with the Canadiens, his on-ice metrics at five-on-five have rebounded significantly. His 61.94 Corsi for percentage (CF%) ranks second on the team to Bratt, and his 66.74 expected goals percentage (xG%) is second to Ondrej Palát, who’s only played in six games after undergoing groin surgery in early November. Tatar’s two-way impact at even strength has been nothing short of spectacular as well:

Tomas Tatar New Jersey Devils
Tomas Tatar’s impact through the first 23 games of the 2022-23 season

Part of the reason Tatar’s impact has been so overwhelmingly positive is that he’s spent most of his time on a line with Hischier this season. But as we’ll see in a second, Tatar has gelled with both of the primary line combinations head coach Lindy Ruff has used in him through 23 games. 

Tatar Thriving in the Top-Six

When the Devils signed Palát to a five-year contract this offseason, the thought was he’d be a significant addition to the team’s top-six. His injury obviously changed those plans, and I’m sure he’ll fit into the discussion once he returns to game action in the coming weeks. However, his injury opened the door for Tatar to earn regular top-six minutes. 

Ruff has used two primary combinations with Tatar, the first being with Hischier and Fabian Zetterlund. They haven’t been together in recent games, but their work as a trio made them one of the most dominant lines in the league at one point. In 116 minutes together, the Devils have outscored teams 8-1 with them on the ice and controlled 65.14 percent of the expected goals. 

This trio was a handful for teams to defend against because not only could they play off the rush, but they were a problem to fend off on the cycle. Take this goal against the Arizona Coyotes in a 4-2 win on Nov. 12 as an example. The Devils gain the offensive zone off the rush, but Hischier and Zetterlund go to work on the cycle. Zetterlund makes a slick pass from behind the net to Tatar, who puts the puck in the back of the net: 

Looking to shake things up a bit after the team’s 13-game win streak was snapped by the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, Ruff moved Zetterlund off a line with Hischier and Tatar and replaced him with Bratt. As expected with a player of Bratt’s caliber, the Devils haven’t missed a step with him, Hischier and Tatar on the ice. 

It’s just a sample size of 45 minutes because they’ve mostly played just the last three games together, but Tatar, Hischier and Bratt have dominated at five-on-five. The Devils have outscored teams 4-0 with them on the ice and controlled 60.12 percent of the expected goals. The three of them teamed up for this pretty rush goal on Monday night in a 5-3 win over the New York Rangers:

The Devils have had success with whichever line Tatar has been a part of this season. He’s in the right places at the right time, and he’s scoring as a result, as the goals above show. The play-driving ability he demonstrated with the Canadiens has returned, as have his five-on-five scoring rates. If he keeps up this level of performance for the rest of the season, could the Devils re-sign him, given that he’s in the final year of his contract?

Tatar’s Strong Play May Earn Him a Contract Extension

The Devils will have an interesting offseason in 2023. Among their pending unrestricted free agents are Ryan Graves, Damon Severson, Jonathan Bernier, Andreas Johnsson, Miles Wood, Erik Haula and Tatar. They’d surely like to re-sign some of them, and Tatar could be one. 

For starters, Tatar’s chemistry with Hischier is undeniable. Even dating back to last season when the team struggled, they posted very strong results together at five-on-five. It’s now just getting converted into goals. Second, though the Devils have high-end skill in Bratt, Hughes and Hischier, every team needs depth. Tatar provides that and can play just about anywhere in the top-nine. At 32 years old, he’s also a good veteran to have around on one of the youngest teams in the league. 

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If the Devils were to re-sign Tatar, it wouldn’t be on a long-term deal since he just turned 32 today. General manager Tom Fitzgerald will have to hand out new contracts to Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich and a slew of other restricted free agents too. But with just over $48 million in cap space, as it stands today, a short two- or three-year extension for Tatar would be doable if that’s something he’s open to. 

Of course, that won’t get sorted out until the spring. Tatar will need to keep up his hot start, but based on how he’s played through the quarter mark of the season, there’s good reason to believe he’s returned to his old self after a down year in 2021-22. It may have taken some time, but the Devils finally look like they’ve gotten the top-six scoring boost they hoped to get from Tatar when they signed him over a year ago. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick