As arbitration approaches, restricted free agents who are set for hearings and in the midst of negotiating new deals will be paying close attention to signings around the league, both past and present. And when it comes to Detroit Red Wings winger Tomas Tatar, who officially filed for arbitration last week, Tyler Johnson’s brand new seven-year, $35-million deal may have been the last thing he wanted to see.
Tatar, 26, is one of the most interesting cases when it comes to arbitration this off-season. He has been one of the Red Wings’ premier scorers over the past three seasons, a prime-aged shooter with three-straight 20-goal seasons under his belt, and according to all reports, Tatar is looking to be paid as such. His ask, or at least that which has been reported, is somewhere in the $5 million-plus range per season on a long-term deal, and he’s made it clear that without some term on his contract, he’s willing to walk next summer when he’ll hit the market for the first time as an unrestricted free agent.
That isn’t simply speculation, either. Tatar himself made that much clear last week when speaking with Slovakian outlet CAS.sk. More specifically, Tatar indicated that if he were to sign a one-year deal through arbitration, it would “probably” be his last in Detroit. So, that’s an indication of where Tatar stands on getting some term on his new deal.
But that brings us to Johnson. When the Red Wings are looking at a new deal for Tatar, they’re going to look at other, comparable players and what those skaters are earning on recently inked contracts. Johnson is assuredly one of the players Detroit will use as a comparison because it’s an easy parallel to draw. Both he and Tatar are 26-year-old second-line forwards who are about to sign their third NHL contracts. Both are — or in Johnson’s case, were — eligible for arbitration and both have been integral parts of their team’s attack over the past three years. From the Red Wings’ point of view, though, seeing Johnson sign a contract that carries a $5-million cap hit is going to give them some pause, especially if Tatar is looking to earn as much or more.
While both Johnson and Tatar have produced at similar rates over the past three seasons, Johnson has a slight edge. Over the length of their past deals, both three-year contracts, Johnson scored 62 goals and 155 points in 212 games. Tatar managed 75 goals and 147 points in 245 games. However, to compare both on three-year terms is to include Johnson’s breakout 2014-15 campaign, and he hasn’t reached the same heights as that 29-goal, 72-point campaign since. A better comparison, then, might be the past two seasons, though that still doesn’t turn the tide in Tatar’s favor.
Since the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign, Johnson has scored 33 goals and 83 points in 135 games to Tatar’s 46 goals and 91 points in 163 outings. Overall, the edge is Tatar’s, but on a points per game basis, Johnson is the more consistently productive with a .61 mark to Tatar’s .56 average.
There are other factors, as well. Maybe the biggest is that Johnson, unlike Tatar, is a center and takes more on-ice responsibility, a higher percentage of defensive zone starts and, though he didn’t receive any consideration this past season, has earned Selke Trophy votes in three of the past four campaigns. He even finished top-10 in voting during the 2014-15 campaign. Additionally, Johnson’s playoff performances are notable. He has helped drive the Lightning to two Eastern Conference finals in the past three seasons, scoring 40 points in 43 games along the way. Tatar, meanwhile, has mustered seven points in 12 playoff games over the past three campaigns.
And given all of that, why would Detroit hand out $5 million to Tatar? While he’s inarguably playing and producing as part of a weaker roster, the comparison between the two players gives the edge to Johnson, who just signed long-term at $5 million per season. One would think a similar deal for Tatar would then come in cheaper, especially if Detroit hands out term over dollars.
There’s reason for Detroit to want to push Tatar’s cap figure down, too. As of Wednesday, Detroit has little more than $2.2 million in cap space with new contracts due to Tatar and Andreas Athanasiou. That means somewhere, in some way, shape or form, Detroit needs to clear up some space to make room before the campaign begins. That’s not to mention the Red Wings will need new deals for RFAs Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Riley Sheahan, Ryan Sproul and Petr Mrazek come next season, so every penny spent will have to be considered.
So, while Tatar may be seeking $5 million-plus on a new deal and pointing to a future where he hits the open market, Johnson’s deal combined with a few other factors could see the Red Wings winger heading to arbitration and earning less — and on a shorter term — than he may have been expecting following a few productive campaigns.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.