Tomas Tatar is finally ready to play with the Red Wings full-time. Ok, maybe he's been ready for a while now. Perhaps that should read that the Red Wings are finally ready for him. Tatar, who will turn 23 this December is at a key point in his career in a few different ways. Coming off his Jack A. Butterfield Trophy win for being the AHL's most valuable player in a playoff run that saw his Grand Rapids Griffins team take home the Calder Cup, Tatar couldn't be better-positioned for a breakout.
For one, Tatar's opportunity to make his way on an NHL squad is all but guaranteed. While he's still on his entry-level contract, his experience with Grand Rapids since he joined them at age 19 makes him waiver eligible. Tatar cannot be sent for another stint in the AHL without first being offered to any other team who would play him at the NHL level.
Considering the circumstances, I'd call the chances of all 29 teams passing on an $840,000 cap hit for a winger who could fit into a few clubs' top six forwards slim. In fact, when combined with his pending RFA status for next year, which should help keep him more-affordable on his next deal, Tatar's potential value makes him one of the most-attractive pieces if the Wings should decide to try a trade.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating that, just saying it's an option.
As if more ice time and a potential raise with his next contract weren't enough motivation for the youngster, this is also an Olympic year and Tatar's standing in relationship to Team Slovakia's roster bubble is perhaps too tentative for him to have a bad start to the season. The three experts polled by NHL.com all thought Tatar would make the squad, but that's not set in stone. Tatar will have exactly half of this season to prove himself before the December 31st Olympic Roster Deadline hits.
Of course, motivation hasn't been Tatar's issue before, patience and focus have. After the 2010-11 season, Tatar was supposed to have been the team's #1 forward prospect, but he was passed in the 2011-12 season by Gustav Nyquist in his first full year with the Griffins, when Nyquist was a match for Tatar's 58 points, but did so in 20 fewer games. A since-deleted Facebook post from last year indicated that Tatar was growing frustrated with his place in the organization. Tatar was likely counseled and was called up last season, playing in 18 games and scoring 4 goals and 3 assists in that time. He was disappointed to have been sent back down in early March to make space for Nyquist, but was able to use that as motivation for his MVP-caliber playoff run.
Steve Amorose did a great piece on Tatar for Fox17 in Grand Rapids back in June which covered the topic well.
The Red Wings Need Him too
This upcoming season for Tatar is more than big for him. We talked at great lengths last year about the Red Wings being a team in transition where we avoided the word "rebuild" in favor of it's more promising alternative "reload." The process is ongoing and the clock is ticking on answers to some very important questions to the Wings. Tatar's performance this season can give some much-needed clarity to a muddying picture.
While Detroit performed well last year and allayed plenty of fears about the future of the team's defensive corps in a post-Lidstrom era, the traditional standard-bearers at forward remained in their positions without a great deal of change going forward. Sure, the additions of Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson are likely to at least be lateral moves when taken against the losses of Valtteri Filppula and Damien Brunner, but Alfredsson is already a temporary solution to the question of secondary scoring and a larger specter still looms.
Detroit's two best forwards still figure to be so for the next few years. While the core is aging, the Wings are entering a crucial time during which very important decisions must be made for the team to stay competitive. It's not a question of whether Pavel & Hank's contributions will start to falter, but of when and how much. The sooner Detroit gets real future core pieces into their lineup to compete for the transitional roles which were first occupied by Datsyuk and Zetterberg back in 2002-03, the better-positioned they are.
The full transition is still several years away and the Wings have flexibility. It's possible that Tatar fizzles completely. It's more likely that he grows into a solid secondary scoring threat, a complementary and important-but-not-crucial add-on to the core going forward. It's also possible that Tatar becomes a bona fide star and fills an absolutely crucial leadership/scoring role for the Wings going forward.
This season will be Tomas Tatar's most-important chance to show what he's capable of, both for him and the Red Wings. He might not get the absolute best opportunity (compared to what some less-deep teams could provide him), but there's not going to be a better time for him to take advantage of the opportunity he gets.