Looking at how free agent Tatar could help a team
How much would you be willing to pay Tomas Tatar?
With most off-season business done (certainly so in the post-Erik Karlsson trade era), it’s hard to blame organizations for being radio silent right now. The lion’s share of contending teams either are pressed against the hard salary cap or already have an eye towards approaching training camp. And though a handful of intriguing names remain available – 34-year-old forward Patrick Kane perhaps at the top of that list – it’s unlikely we see many more player transactions in the month ahead.
One name I do anticipate coming off the board is the aforementioned Tatar, whose track record of production in recent years remains impressive. Just last season, Tatar managed 20 goals and 48 points in New Jersey’s high-flying lineup – high-quality, middle-six point production, and a continuance of what we have seen from Tatar after a fragmented stint in Vegas during the 2017-18 season.
At 32-years-old and well over 800 games of mileage, Tatar is likely looking for his last professional contract with term, which makes a return to New Jersey – who have under $2 million in cap space as of now – a bit of a challenge. For interested suitors outside of New Jersey, I see a few pivotal questions: how much did playing in the Devils up-tempo lineup positively influence Tatar and his style of play, does Tatar still merit a contract similar to the one that just expired (two-years, $9 million), and are there any indications Tatar’s game is at risk of slippage considering his age?
The last question is best explored through trended, long-term data. We understand that over large sample sizes, individual players have a tangible impact on goal differentials, Tatar’s numbers exploded in the last couple of years with New Jersey’s respective rise, but over the course of his career, Tatar has generally been a valuable presence whenever he’s on the ice:
Tatar may be the best example you can find of why it’s important to use long-term data, and why it’s important to look at both real and expected goals when evaluating a player. In Tatar’s case, he’s been whipsawed around both extremely poor (Montreal) and extremely quality (New Jersey) teams, he’s played near the top of lineups with high-end forwards and buried on fourth lines with grinders, and most notably, he’s seen extreme volatility in the goaltending performance behind him.
How volatile? From 2019-22, Tatar’s goaltenders stopped just 89 per cent of shots with him on the ice, a number porous enough to sink most any forward’s broader performance numbers. And yet those three seasons are sandwiched by outstanding goaltending performance behind Tatar in 2018-19 (Carey Price) and 2022-23 (Akira Schmid/Vitek Vanecek). Look at any season individually, and you may have a very different conclusion determining Tatar’s influence on his team’s overall play.
But I think the most compelling argument in support of Tatar is that despite the two-tailed volatility, he’s full-up been a valuable contributor over those 800-plus games. His cumulative goal differentials may look like a roller coaster, but they are well above break-even, and it’s why he’s had such sticking power in the league:
At this stage of his career, Tatar is more of a complementary attacker, but you have to imagine a team similarly situated to New Jersey – one that’s willing to play an aggressive, high-tempo attack that lends itself to Tatar’s skill set and skating abilities.
Finding a team that checks those boxes isn’t too difficult, but finding one with the requisite cap space is a bigger challenge – the Pittsburgh Penguins have apparently shown interest, and other possible contenders in the Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets could make it work. Beyond that handful of names, it may be the approaching training camps that give us clarity and resolution on the Tatar front. It only takes one consequential injury or trade to create the need and the opportunity, and from what we can see, he still looks like a meaningful contributor.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, NHL.com, CapFriendly