Nobody expected the first-year Golden Knights to be battling for first place overall at this point in the NHL season. But here they are, so Vegas sent three high draft picks to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for scoring winger Tomas Tatar.
Let’s get the glass-half-empty news out of the way first. The Detroit Red Wings whiffed badly by failing to move pending UFA Mike Green on NHL trade deadline day. Maybe GM Ken Holland wasn’t happy with the offers that he received. It’s likely Green’s neck injury complicated matters more than originally expected. But no matter what, it stings badly when a rebuilding team gets nothing for an expiring asset at arguably the most premium of positions, a right-shooting mobile defenseman, hockey’s equivalent of a left-handed starting pitcher.
That’s out of the way now. Good. Time to praise Holland for a deal he did make on Monday: sending left winger Tomas Tatar to the Vegas Golden Knights for a 2018 first-round pick, a 2019 second-round pick and a 2021 third-round pick. Holland pulled off the magic trick without retaining any of Tatar’s $5.3-million cap hit, which Vegas will now carry through the 2020-21 season.
After the Wings ended a 25-year playoff streak last season, this is essentially just Holland’s second deadline as a seller, and while he only batted .500 on major moves, his one hit was a grand slam. The Wings now have exactly two picks in each of the first, second, third and fourth rounds this June. The pick they get from Vegas will be late in the first round, but Detroit’s own selection will be lottery-eligible, so it’s not outside the possibility the franchise gets its highest draft pick since taking Keith Primeau third overall in 1990 – on top of picking again in Round 1 to boot.
This is a luxury trade for the Golden Knights. They don’t even have enough farmhands to field a full AHL affiliate yet, but (a) they did remarkably well in their first draft, nabbing Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, Erik Brannstrom and Nic Hague with four of the first 34 overall picks, so they have a good prospect base even though they’ve lost draft picks going forward; (b) they have plenty of cap space, so Tatar’s cap hit is no problem; and, (c) they find themselves in a once-in-a-lifetime situation, having perhaps the most shockingly successful season of any expansion team in major pro North American pro sports history. They reportedly pursued Erik Karlsson to the bitter end on Monday for that very reason, per TSN’s Bob McKenzie. With the Tatar deal, they have, in a sense, delayed the long-term construction of their roster by dealing away three picks, but they aren’t a rebuilding team right now, plain and simple. They lead the NHL in points percentage, meaning the most deadly home team in the league is on track for home-ice advantage through the entire playoffs. Tatar is a fun piece for coach Gerard Gallant to play with, too, as Tatar can play on either wing and his speed will fit nicely in the Knights’ extreme-up-tempo forechecking system. Tatar is just 27, so he has good years left to offer, and his current production – 16 goals and 28 points in 62 games – at least partially reflects the weak team he’s played on. He has long been one of Detroit’s best possession players relative to his teammates.
Another interesting thing about Tatar: he’s younger than pending UFAs James Neal and David Perron. If Tatar ends up playing well down the stretch for this team, he might turn a Perron or Neal into a “rental,” with Tatar the medium-term replacement. So the deal isn’t as rash as it might seem on Vegas GM George McPhee’s part. Tatar can be part of the team’s plans for several seasons. Also, McPhee obviously has the green light from owner Bill Foley to spend money, whether it’s real dollars or cap dollars.
So everybody wins on this one – even though, if we really break down the parts, it’s fair to say Vegas grossly overpaid for Tatar. That makes the deal a coup for the Wings – and for the Golden Knights, it’s a “why the hell not?” for a team that never dreamed it would be in a position to pursue a deal like this in Year 1.