Since the NHL’s salary cap upper limit has remained relatively flat in the last few years, salary cap space has been extremely scarce across the league. The type of player perhaps most negatively impacted by the leaguewide lack of cap space is the NHL’s “middle-class” of free agents. The are the sort of complementary players who don’t necessarily define a lineup, but nonetheless regularly contribute to one.
Tomas Tatar is maybe the best example of a player whose earning power has been decreased by the tight financial situation of most contending teams.
As a scoring winger with a consistent track record of potting 20-30 goals and 45-55 points per season, Tatar is exactly the kind of player who would have likely sparked a significant bidding war on the free agent market.
That’s especially true when one considers the fact that Tatar has the upside to score even more, as he did in 2020-21 when he led the Montreal Canadiens with 61 points in 68 games. That’s a 73-point 82-game pace, and the type of production that’s rare to find on the open market.
But with cap space at an absolute premium, those types of bidding wars became reserved for only the cream-of-the-crop free agents.
In his most recent trip to free agency, Tatar ended up signing a two-year, $4.5MM AAV contract with a rebuilding New Jersey Devils team.
It wasn’t exactly an unfair yearly price tag for Tatar’s services, but it also wasn’t the career-defining cash-in with a contending club that many free agents in earlier cycles had been able to land.
Fast forward two years, Tatar has once again hit free agency and he remains unsigned more than two weeks after the market opened. Next to Vladimir Tarasenko he’s one of the few goal scorers and proven NHL commodities left on the market, though there are certain elements of his profile that could give contending teams pause.
Perhaps the most significant red flag in Tatar’s profile is for how consistent his regular-season production has been, a lack of productivity in the playoffs has been similarly consistent. Tatar only scored one goal in 12 playoff games for the Devils, sat as a healthy scratch for most of the Montreal Canadiens’ 2021 Stanley Cup Final run, and has just 13 points in 52 career playoff games.
Set to turn 33 in December, it’s not exactly likely that the inability to contribute in the playoffs that has been consistent throughout his career will end up changing. So while Tatar is still searching for his first-ever Stanley Cup, he might be a better fit for a team looking to escape its rebuild with the goal of reaching the playoffs, rather than a club with true Stanley Cup aspirations.
2022-23: 82 GP, 20-28-48, +41 rating, 30 PIMs, 153 shots on goal, 60.2% CF, 15:07 ATOI
Career: 783 GP, 211-244-455, +42 rating, 276 PIMs, 1,636 shots on goal, 60.6% CF, 15:29 ATOI
Tatar is an interesting case because what sort of contending team wouldn’t jump at the chance to add a consistent 20-25 goal, 45-50 point scorer to its lineup? But as previously mentioned, the pattern Tatar has clearly established throughout his career of struggling mightily to produce in the postseason should give many contending teams pause.
At this point, combining the realities of Tatar’s profile with the realities of the leaguewide financial picture, Tatar’s most optimal suitors are franchises more concerned with escaping a rebuild and reaching the postseason rather than the ones worried about immediately competing for the Stanley Cup.
A team such as the Buffalo Sabres, who own the NHL’s longest playoff drought, could be a good fit. While they already boast quite a bit of talent along the wings, Jack Quinn recently underwent surgery to repair an Achilles injury and is expected to miss the start of next season. They’re currently projected to have around $6.7MM in cap space, so fitting Tatar on a one-year contract would be no issue.
Not only would signing Tatar insulate them against any further health complications in their forward corps, it would also protect their playoff chances in the case a player such as J.J. Peterka gets hit with a sophomore slump.
Another team that could fit is the Sabres’ Atlantic Division rival, the Ottawa Senators. They too have the cap space to fit a Tatar contract, and similar to Buffalo they are desperate to return to the playoffs after a long absence.
Ottawa just dealt Alex DeBrincat away and while they received Dominik Kubalik in return, Tatar would be a powerful addition to their third line. He could greatly help the development of a young winger such as Ridly Greig, who could end up playing on Tatar’s line.
At this point, it seems unlikely Tatar’s next deal will match the two-year, $4.5MM AAV pact he signed in his last trip to free agency. A one-year deal seems the most likely outcome, and the ultimate price could very well depend on what Tarasenko signs for. Should Tarasenko end up receiving under $5MM, for example, Tatar’s argument to receive a guarantee around that number weakens.
Tatar could very well end up earning a one-year deal at a mid-range AAV, but seeing as players such as Blake Wheeler have taken contracts below even $1MM overall, attempting to project what Tatar will earn on his next deal is something of a guessing game. The most important thing to know, then, is that at this stage of the market, the race to secure Tatar’s services is unlikely to be extremely competitive and pricey.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images