Every Detroit Red Wings fan knew there would come a time when the stars – the Steve Yzermans and Nicklas Lidstroms and Henrik Zetterbergs – would move on. And maybe with that would come the first season without a playoff appearance in over two decades. But every time that moment seems ready to come to pass, a new star emerges.
Yzerman had two successors, in a sense, with Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Niklas Kronwall has stepped up to fill some of the void left by Lidstrom. These were obvious replacements; players that had shown their capabilities while the Red Wings heroes of days gone by were still on the roster. Until recently, however, the replacements for an aging Zetterberg and Datsyuk weren’t so clear.
While Gustav Nyquist has surfaced and been crowned an obvious heir to carry the Red Wings into the future when the aging twosome of Zetterberg and Datsyuk move on, Tomas Tatar is making his case as the other half of the dynamic duo that will be rocking Detroit for years to come.
The reason Tatar has flown largely under the radar is because he didn’t burst onto the scene the way Nyquist did. In his first real shot at the NHL, Tatar didn’t pot nearly 30 goals in 57 games like Nyquist. Tatar didn't make a push for Calder Trophy honors in his first season. But this season, Tatar, not Nyquist, is Detroit’s leading goal scorer.
His 22 goals put him ahead of Zetterberg, ahead of Datsyuk (who has admittedly only played 40 games), and is one less than Johan Franzen, Stephen Weiss, and Darren Helm combined. At 24, Tatar has found his place alongside Helm and Datsyuk on one of the team’s top two lines and there’s little doubt he’ll be there well into the future.
While his goal scoring output is one of the things that will endear him to the casual fan, what is more impressive about Tatar’s play is the possession aspect of his game. Watching Datsyuk on a near daily basis certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s growth in aspects of the game like protecting the puck and learning how to maintain possession, but the young Slovakian winger has already seemingly fine-tuned the possession aspects of the game that are becoming ever-more important in today’s NHL.
For every team in the league, there are those that either drive and drag possession. Patrick Kane, for example, while one of the game’s most dynamic offensive players, is not the strongest defensive player. That’s why when Kane gets hemmed into the Blackhawks zone, he typically can’t get out. That’s why the Chicago star starts 42.5 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone yet has a 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage of just 52.5. Contrast that with Tatar, who starts 37.5 percent of his shifts in the opponent’s end but has a 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage of 59.2 percent, and you get a picture of the kind of possession dominance the Red Wings winger has shown.
This isn’t to say Tatar will ever be Kane or Kane will ever be Tatar. They’re two distinctly different players, but it shows that even the best offensive players can pull down possession numbers, while others help raise boost them. Tatar falls into the latter category, as one of Detroit's, and the NHL's, best possession players.
Just using Tatar’s possession numbers with or without teammates – commonly referred to as WOWY numbers – paints a picture of Detroit’s leading goal scorer as a potential successor to the great Datsyuk. Of the 13 players (excluding goaltenders) that he has played at least 50 minutes of 5-on-5 with, all but one player – Datsyuk, of course – has worse possession numbers when they’re not playing alongside Tatar. But even though Datsyuk may have a better Corsi For percentage without Tatar, it’s by a mere .1 percent.
Of all players in the league that have played at least 50 minutes of 5-on-5, Tatar ranks sixth in Corsi For percentage at 59.2, tied with Datsyuk. Tatar is the only player in the top-10 that has played at least 41 games, and the five skaters ahead of him have played less games combined than Tatar's 51, which is to say that not only has Tatar had an incredible possession rate, he's sustained it over time like no player in the league.
It’s those kind of numbers, along with a knack for the net, that make Tatar the most obvious player to suit up alongside Nyquist and take the Red Wings into the future. They’re different players, but they fit together in a team concept to create a two-headed best the likes of which Detroit has had for the last decade with Zetterberg and Datsyuk. But like Tatar isn’t Kane, neither he nor Nyquist will immediately fill the shoes of Zetterberg or Datsyuk, just like neither Red Wings star was the same as the player before them.
Outside of Detroit you won’t hear much talk about Tatar yet, but it’s coming. And Tatar, with players like Nyquist, Tomas Jurco, and Teemu Pulkkinen around him, will be as much a part of keeping the Detroit Red Wings winning tradition alive as his predecessors.