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On Tomas Tatar and His 20 Goals

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No bones about it; this season has been tough on Detroit Red Wings fans all over. Tomas Tatar is here to make it slightly better.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Detroit Red Wings Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday afternoon, Tomas Tatar scored two goals in 96 seconds against the cellar-dwelling Colorado Avalanche. Those tallies got Tatar to the 20-goal mark for the third consecutive season.

Some fans aren’t too pleased with this, for reasons I understand, but also have to shake my head at. There’s a sentiment out there that it’s just too little, too late. Objectively it’s true, subjectively it’s hard to agree when Tatar is now leading his team in goals, four ahead of second-ranked Andreas Athanasiou.

There’s a whole host of reasons why this team has been performing far below even our reserved expectations this season. Tomas Tatar just now reaching the 20-goal plateau is certainly one of them, as he is a player well-suited to a role where he isn’t the lead actor in this macabre production, but is a strong supporting character. Gustav Nyquist is certainly in that same mold.

Incidentally:

Injuries have obviously played a large role in the Wings’ diminished success, as has been the case for several seasons now. You can’t convince me that 2013-14 wouldn’t have gone differently if Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk didn’t combine for a mere 90 regular season games between them due to injuries that nearly proved catastrophic for the team. This season would look at least less awful if Jimmy Howard’s career year hadn’t been ground to a halt by yet another injury at the worst time possible.

But if you want to take the concept of “too little, too late” and slap that label on Tatar’s recent hot streak (5-3—8 in his last five games), then you absolutely have to take that out of the vacuum and apply it to other aspects of the team this year.

The power play is the quintessential example, obviously. The Wings went 18 consecutive road games without a goal on the man advantage, spanning nearly three full calendar months and 52 opportunities in those 18 contests. There’s an NHL record in there somewhere, if I’m not mistaken.

I mean, the conversion rate on the power play in December was 4.5%. That’s horrific, and even now at the time of this article, it’s only at 13.8%. So yeah, it’s improved, but this crucial aspect of the game that can be directly affected by changes in strategies or player deployment ought to be a bigger target for “too little, too late” than one player finally getting hot.

Not to mention that if you’re going to complain about a player actually scoring goals like that’s a bad thing, we ought to look at players who are still underperforming. Four-and-a-quarter-million dollar man Justin Abdelkader has a sweet six goals this season, so chalk him up as “too little for way too much and way too long.” Yes, yes, age and contract statuses come into play with the discrepancies in Abdelkader’s and Tatar’s salaries, but if anyone tries to tell you that means a damn thing in terms of what those players should be putting up on the scoresheet, that person is wrong.

Speaking of contracts, Tatar’s is up this off-season. He’ll be coming off a three-year, $2.75M AAV deal, and he’ll be an RFA. This provides some fans with another point to be generally peeved about; Tatar is heating up just in time to cash in on a more-expensive new contract this summer. I mean, I get this complaint as well — in a Red Wings future where roster spots are being guaranteed for too long and cap hits are over-inflated (see Abdelkader, above), we want all the hometown discounts we can get.

Or maybe we want Tatar to be used as a trade piece, an attractive talent who is too similar to Nyquist, and this recent goal tear increases the chances he’ll be getting another deal instead. Also a legitimate concern if you’re the kind of fan that wants the team to sell assets for picks and prospects to really kick this rebuild into full gear. No worries if you’re that person either, by the way, as we all have our own comfort levels with what we hope Detroit does in the coming years to ensure long-term success.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not trying to de-legitimize people’s concerns or tell anyone that being angry over these things is dumb.

What I do want is for everyone to just enjoy Tatar’s goals for what they are at face value. We all know it’s been a very difficult season for Red Wings fans on the whole. The deaths of Gordie Howe and Mike Ilitch, the closing of Joe Louis Arena, and the end of the playoff streak all mark losses of comforts and points of pride shared by this fanbase worldwide. The team itself has gone through periods of crushing lows, hitting points where they’ve been downright unwatchable. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe the Red Wings of today.

But it is exactly for those reasons that I think we should find the bright spots wherever we can. Even through the dark, heavy clouds that have followed the Wings right down to the basement of the league, there are little rays of sunshine punching their way through that cover, reminding us all why we love this game and this team.

Andreas Athanasiou got benched at one point this season, sure, and he came back from his sit-down like hell on wheels Hella on skates. He’s been a marvel to watch this season, gaining league-wide recognition for his flashy play, and just continuing to not care about breaking the sound barrier inside NHL arenas.

Henrik Zetterberg, oh man. Where do I even begin? The man is simply unreal once again for his team. It kills me that the streak is going to end on his watch, especially after his strongly-worded speech in 2013 about that not happening as long as he had anything to say about it. And he seems hell-bent on keeping that promise even if he has to do it all himself; he has 34 points in his last 34 games. He is performing at a point-per-game pace in the second half of his 14th season in this league, and while he isn’t going to be able to drag this team kicking and screaming into the playoffs on his surgically-repaired back once more, he certainly deserves some well-earned recognition for being a great role model and leader for kids in Detroit, on the ice and in the stands.

So yes, Tatar’s hot streak is coming at a frustrating time for multiple reasons. But this is a time in the decline of the Red Wings that you could have a dozen 19-goal scorers making up your nightly forward lines, and someone out there would still complain about not having any 20-goal guys on the roster. Let’s get in a circle and hold hands, tell each other we like their haircuts or their new shoes, and celebrate everyone’s favorite tot-sized tater entertaining us another twenty times this season.