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Avalanche add Tomas Tatar to reworked forward group

AJ Haefele Avatar
September 12, 2023

On September 12 of last year, the Avalanche added a forward who appeared a great fit for them and hadn’t seen his foray into free agency land the kind of contract he had his sights set on. Evan Rodrigues went on to be a vital addition to the team and one of the steals of the offseason.

One year later, the Avalanche did the same thing but with Tomas Tatar as they landed the 32-year-old veteran on a one-year deal for just $1.5M.

Tatar spent last season with the New Jersey Devils and recorded the seventh 20-goal season of his career with a 20-goal, 28-assist (48 points) campaign in 82 games played.

Per usual, let’s get into the various angles of this signing with some fancystats for Tatar and a quick look at what it could mean for the logjam that is now Colorado’s forward group.

How good is Tatar?

As always, I like to give you different looks at Tatar from a view of the different publicly available models to try to present as well-rounded a look as possible but let’s start with some overall player cards before breaking into the finer details.

The first three all drive home that Tatar is still a very effective NHL player and one that can be relied upon in a middle-six role. Consider the money involved, too, and it’s extremely difficult to conjure a meaningful reason why this would be a bad deal for the Avalanche.

I think what’s most interesting across the models is the consistency that Tatar has as a quality play-driving winger but one who has struggled with his finishing ability in recent years. He’s actually finished below his expected goals in the last two seasons.

That’s a testament more to the quality of his ability to drive play while maintaining a quality two-way game than an indictment of his actual scoring ability as he has registered 36 goals in the last two seasons.

Maybe what sticks out to me most is that fourth chart where you look at his ice time and see that he’s no longer considered a hard and fast second-line player anymore but more of a true middle-six option.

To continue scoring at that rate with that kind of ice time is very encouraging, especially because his production is not a creation of special team opportunities. Over the last three seasons, Only five of Tatar’s 45 goals have come on the power play and just 12 of his 63 assists were registered with the man advantage.

Tatar’s strength as a left-shot wing who can play both sides and produce at even strength is the kind of late-summer find that could make a major difference for the Avalanche. I want to dig a little deeper into his game to see where he might fit in with the Avs in particular.

The strengths here are pretty obvious. That’s a LOT of blue. Tatar excels at creating offense via shooting, passing, transition, and the cycle. That’s…all of the ways in which you can create offense for a hockey team. He gets pucks to the dangerous areas of the ice on a consistent basis.

Where he’s more lacking is in getting the puck out of the defensive zone and forechecking. That’s not a big surprise as he’s not a very physical player and finds his defensive success with an active stick and hockey smarts. After the Avs went and got Ross Colton and Miles Wood to join Andrew Cogliano and Logan O’Connor as players in Colorado’s bottom six who like to run into other players, a player with Tatar’s skill set makes a lot of sense.

The penalties aren’t even really as big a problem as they appear here because he isn’t taking very many himself. The reason the numbers are so low is that he doesn’t draw very many as he’s not an overly assertive player.

So the summation here is that Tatar has been a consistently good player throughout his career and he’s useful to the Avalanche as a guy who can help somewhere in their forward corps without having to get a ton of ice time to be successful.

If Tatar is so solid, why was he still on the market?

For one thing, this happens every year. Guys fall through the cracks for whatever reason and when teams spend their money, it can be a challenge for an imperfect player such as Tatar to land a deal he likes.

Last year with Rodrigues, it was the case of a player who had struggled to secure a full-time job in the NHL only having one really productive season and that included his points totally drying up in the second half of the season. He was a risky profile.

In the case of Tatar, he carries risk of his own. Not because of extreme splits or anything, but because he might just be the kind of player who sees his best hockey played during the regular season and when it comes time to chase down the Stanley Cup, he isn’t the same guy.

Looking at his career numbers, Tatar’s points per game in the regular season is a stout .58. Nothing spectacular but a very good complementary goal-scoring forward. His playoffs? A ghastly .25.

In fact, when he was a member of the Montreal Canadiens during their Stanley Cup Final run a few seasons ago, he was a healthy scratch most of the time and played just five of those games and recorded one assist.

At 32, Tatar is on the back end of his career so expecting something very different might not be fair. All of that said, it’s fair to point out that Tatar’s play-driving has held up in the postseason just fine, but the scoring hasn’t followed. His PDO (the proxy we use to try to measure “luck” but really it’s about erasing randomness over large samples) in last year’s 12 playoff games was .892, which is a shockingly low number. Most of the time really unlucky players are in the range of .970, so for Tatar to be that low speaks to small sample size at play but also that he was probably hilariously unlucky along the way.

Digging into the numbers, Tatar’s expected goals percentage at 5v5 in last year’s playoffs was 48%, which isn’t amazing or anything but it’s competitive. His actual goal percentage? 18%.

There’s a strong case to be made overall that Tatar’s playstyle struggles when the game tightens up, but there’s also some evidence here that some of it might be a touch overblown as his expected goals percentage in the playoffs has generally been very good.

Okay, but where does he fit in the lineup?

If you’ve read this far, you’re a gem. If you opened this up and skipped right to this part, that’s okay, too. Line combinations are fun for everyone.

It’s important to note that you can adjust these however you want and it’s very likely we will see Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar do plenty of early-season tinkering. Here’s a rough outline of a potential lineup right now.

Lehkonen – MacKinnon – Drouin
Nichushkin – Johansen – Rantanen
Wood – Colton – Tatar
Cogliano – Olofsson – O’Connor

There are a lot of guys competing for the spot that I have Fredrik Olofsson in right now but that’s immaterial to the Tatar conversation so I won’t get into all of it.

Looking at that forward group, you’ll see an entirely new third line and five of the top nine forwards are new to Colorado this season.

Where I really like Tatar is that he’s kind of a built-in insurance policy in case Drouin doesn’t work out. Tatar sliding into where I have Rantanen as Rantanen takes over for Drouin would be a good way to adjust if things with Drouin go south.

I’m not saying they will, but having Tatar on hand as a contingency plan is just good business. If things work out with Drouin, well, that’s a pretty good scenario, too.

And if all else fails, well, Nikolai Kovalenko is still across the pond to join the Avalanche later this year.

Tatar’s deal leaves the Avs with about $500K in cap space but that can change depending on how they build the bottom of the roster and the uncertainty of the health of everyone heading into the start of the season.

Ultimately, it will be very hard for Tatar to fail to live up to the $1.5M number he just signed for and the Avs are in a position to be the main beneficiary.

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