In search of some more scoring for the 2021-22 season, the New Jersey Devils signed Tomáš Tatar to a two-year contract last summer worth $4.5 million per year. At the time, signing him was a no-brainer. He was coming off three very strong years with the Montreal Canadiens, where he averaged 24 goals and 62 points per 82 games. He seemed like a good bet to add scoring depth, but his first season in New Jersey didn’t go as planned.
Tatar finished the 2021-22 campaign with 15 goals and 30 points in 76 games and saw his impacts fall sharply from where he was with the Canadiens. At 31 years old, age-related decline is always a possibility. However, there are reasons to believe that the Devils should expect a bit of a bounce-back from Tatar in 2022-23.
Tatar’s 2021-22 Wasn’t All Bad
There’s a reason I had Tatar among the top free-agent targets for the Devils last summer. He was among one of the best play drivers in the league and consistently put up top-six scoring rates in his three seasons with the Canadiens.
Some of that was partly due to being linemates with Brendan Gallagher and Philip Danault for most of his tenure in Montreal. That trio was among one of the best lines in hockey, but even when isolating Tatar’s numbers from Danault and Gallagher, he was still one of the Canadiens’ best five-on-five players. Away from those two, he posted Corsi and expected goals percentages (CF%, xG%) of 54.6 percent. Not the 60-plus CF and xG percentages as part of a line with Danault and Gallagher, but still quite good nonetheless.
Unfortunately for the Devils, Tatar’s first season in New Jersey did not mirror what he did in Montreal. He finished with a 52.28 CF% and 51.04 xG%, which is still quite good, but his impacts declined significantly. He averaged only 1.46 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five, down from the 2.49 points/60 he averaged with the Canadiens.
With that said, Tatar’s dropoff wasn’t just about his play. One way to determine this is by looking at on-ice shooting percentage, which measures how often a team scores when a player is on the ice (it’s not a player’s individual SH%). Of players to log 150 minutes at five-on-five for the Devils last season, Tatar’s on-ice SH% of 6.8 percent ranked third lowest. Only Jimmy Vesey and Marián Studenič finished with lower on-ice shooting percentages than him.
In his three seasons with the Canadiens, Tatar’s on-ice SH% was never below 7.97 percent. Just that alone should be enough reason to think he’ll score more in 2022-23. But a look at his trend in goals above replacement (GAR) also presents a favorable argument for a bounce back:
Tatar’s expected GAR (xGAR) chart shows a downward slope from 2018-19 onward. At the same time, his GAR of minus-3.5 was well below his xGAR of 1.4 this past season. Plus, that dramatic a decline in his GAR suggests there could be some type of bounce-back next season, but how much? And is there anything else to warrant him as the Devils’ top bounce-back candidate as Andreas Johnsson was a year ago?
Tatar Still Has Something to Offer
Just a bit more finishing when Tatar is on the ice should help him quite a bit, but his microstats also suggest he still has something left in the tank. Via Corey Sznajder’s tracked data and JFresh’s visuals, Tatar still did some things pretty well last season, even if he didn’t score as much as hoped.
Offensively, he ranked in the 60th and 71st percentile in shots and chances created, and he generated shots off high-danger passes in the 80th percentile. His passing data rated similarly, though he could benefit from getting the puck to high-danger areas more often. He also created quite a bit off the rush, whether it was shots or assists.
In transition, he didn’t attempt controlled zone entries too often. But when he did, he found success, ranking in the 86th percentile in entry possession rate and entries leading to a scoring chance. He also ranked in the 75h percentile in exit possession rate and 78th percentile in carry exits. The one area where he needs to do better is creating more in-zone offense:
Generally, Tatar did the things you want from someone you expect to drive play. He was creating chances off the rush, and his passing data looks solid. This is more a theory than anything else, but the lack of in-zone assists could be because he had the third lowest on-ice SH% on the Devils. If that’s the case, I’d expect that to improve in 2022-23.
It’s probably fair to believe that gets better too. In acquiring Erik Haula from the Boston Bruins, the Devils are getting someone who goes to high-danger areas and capitalizes on the chances he receives. With Dawson Mercer staying on the wing in the top-six, Haula will likely be the team’s third-line center. If that’s the case, there’s a good chance he’ll be Tatar’s linemate. Given the type of player he is and that Tatar showed he can still facilitate play, the two should be a good match.
A reduced role should also help Tatar a bit too. His most common linemates this past season were Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier. If you’re on a line with Hischier, you were in a top-six role at a minimum. While that trio had impressive five-on-five numbers, they only had an on-ice SH% of 5.6 percent. Hischier can score, but he’s more of a passer and facilitator, while Zacha didn’t have enough finishing ability to convert the chances Tatar or Hischier would create.
Zacha was part of the Haula trade, so he obviously won’t be Tatar’s linemate moving forward. To replace him, the Devils signed Ondrej Palát in free agency. Palat has averaged 20 goals and 55 points per 82 games over the last three seasons, so I’d safely assume he’ll start 2022-23 somewhere in the top-six. With Mercer sticking at wing or possibly Alexander Holtz making the team, that would move Tatar down the lineup, which should help him.
Cautious Optimism for Tatar Bouncing Back
There’s no guarantee of Tatar bouncing back, but the signs do point to him rebounding a bit. Will he return to the scoring rates he posted with the Canadiens? Possibly, but I wouldn’t bet on it, especially if he’s not playing in the top-six. But if he’s on the third line with Haula and someone like Fabian Zetterlund, that’s a line that’ll have some finishing ability alongside Tatar. If that helps him put up 20 goals and 40 points, the Devils would gladly take it. And there’s enough to suggest he’s still capable of those numbers.
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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