Tatar proving Wings’ development still strong

The Red Wings have built their success on spotting and developing latent talent deep in the draft. And, with steady Slovakian youngster Tomas Tatar, they’ve done it again.

Tomas Tatar had the attention of the Detroit Red Wings well before last spring. As the team’s second pick—60th overall—in the 2009 draft, Tatar was valued for a diverse skill set that included an ability to finish around the net. But when the young Slovakian went out and popped 16 goals in 24 playoff games in the American Hockey League last year, it’s fair to say everybody with the Wings went on high alert.

“That’s a lot of goals in a pro league in playoff hockey,” Detroit GM Ken Holland said.

It might seem like a stretch to suggest a 22-year-old with 35 career NHL games who was scratched several times to start this season embodies all that is right with the league’s model organization, but we’re in the mood to make a case.

Tatar gained post-season MVP honours with the Calder Cup-winning Grand Rapids Griffins last year, but his worth isn’t truly most accurately reflected by that performance. When Holland talks about expectations for Tatar at the NHL level, he speaks of 10-12 goals this year, and maybe 15-23 down the road. But the reason Holland and his team are high on Tatar is because he has the diverse tool kit to score goals playing with stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, while also being trusted to skate with units that worry about goal prevention as much as creation.

“If you wanted to use him with ‘Pav’ and ‘Z,’ he’d have no problem fitting in,” Holland says. “But he also can play on our third and fourth lines because he does a great job managing the puck and he plays hard.

“We like him a lot. We think he’s going to be a real good pro.”

A sliver of that is likely based on Tatar’s recent production—two goals and three points during a four-game swing through western Canada—but it’s mostly rooted in the 265 games he spent marinating with the Wings’ farm team from age 19. Detroit’s unwavering insistence on bringing players along slowly is an organizational ethic built on necessity. The Wings famously haven’t missed the playoffs since the 1989-90 campaign, winning four championships along the way. They also haven’t drafted higher than 19th overall during that entire span and their only top-10 pick in that time came in 1991, when they nabbed Martin Lapointe after nine teams had selected.

“Where we pick in the draft, we don’t get those players who are ready to come out of junior,” Holland said. “The players we pick, we think can develop into NHL players, but there’s a reason they go deeper in the draft.”

There’s no question Detroit is going to have a tough time ultimately replacing its superstars. Nicklas Lidstrom is gone, with Datsyuk and Zetterberg not that far behind. All three of those players were draft steals—Lidstrom the highest at 53rd overall, Zetterberg the lowest at 210th—the sort of which the Wings aren’t likely experience again on that level. But they have Tatar. In Jimmy Howard, they have a goalie who spent 186 games in the AHL before becoming a stud No. 1. They have a defence that suddenly only features one regular, Niklas Kronwall, over 30 years old. They have prospects like 24-year-old Gustav Nyquist—a Swede drafted 121st in 2008—putting up better than a point-per-game in the AHL for a team that is once again one of the circuit’s best.

Moulding these players is absolutely critical for the ongoing success of a team that has no intention of losing a lot of games and landing at the top of the draft board. And sooner or later, if you develop enough desirable young NHL players, you might be in position to package up a few and talk to a team that’s sick and tired of drafting in the top five every year because it can’t fill out a roster from top to bottom the way the Detroit has.

That’s just one of the benefits of doing things the Red Wing Way.