MONTREAL — In this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, it was easy for Montreal Canadiens fans to overlook what their team acquired in Tomas Tatar when general manager Marc Bergevin traded former captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sept. 10.
The focus was on 19-year-old centre Nick Suzuki back then and rightly so, with Bergevin referring to the 13th overall pick at the 2017 NHL Draft as the key piece to the deal that included Tatar and a 2019 second-round pick coming back to Montreal. An A-level prospect, who’s at worst a year away from starting what promises to be a bright NHL career, was a must to obtain in trading away a perennial 30-goal scorer in Pacioretty.
Gaining another draft pick, for a team that’s intrinsically focused more on its future than it is on its present, was also essential.
But all eyes are on Tatar now. He scored a goal and notched two assists in a 7-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Monday, bringing his season total to seven points through five games with the Canadiens, and he has quickly proven to Montreal fans that his 20 regular-season games and eight in the playoffs with the Golden Knights last year were an anomaly in what’s been an otherwise solid NHL career.
Call that icing on the cake.
Of course we’re not suggesting the 27-year-old Slovak is going to maintain his torrid pace — if he did, he’d shatter his previous career-high of 56 points with Detroit in 2014-15 — but he’s bringing more to the table than anyone around these parts anticipated when this trade was made.
People should have known better.
“I knew a lot [about] him,” said Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin, who had two goals, including the opener on a penalty shot, in the win. “I watch a lot of hockey. He has the skill, he owns the puck, good shooter. I think his biggest thing is that he’s so heavy on the puck that he can hold onto it for a while.
“I think you look at his goals, he goes to the front of the net. It’s not pretty, it’s not something you’re going to see on every highlight reel, but it helps our team.”
So does Tatar’s attitude.
Linemate Phil Danault said Tatar’s smile fills the room and his boisterous laugh gets everyone rolling.
“He’s got heart,” Danault added.
“He’s a competitor,” said coach Claude Julien after Monday’s win, which gave the Canadiens a 3-1-1 record on the season. “He comes into practice, I think he’s enjoying the game, I think he comes with the compete level, I think he’s enthusiastic about being here and it’s spreading around to everybody else. It’s contagious. His teammates really like him, he’s got a great personality.
“It’s just a fact that guys who enjoy playing hockey and come every day loving their job go out there every night and perform that way, and that’s what he’s been doing.”
It’s hard to ignore, even when the focus is on another Tomas who plays for the Canadiens.
Yes, it was Tomas Plekanec who was named the first star of this game after serendipity saw him bank a puck off Detroit defenceman Filip Hronek for an improbable goal in his 1000th NHL game. A well-deserved honour for a player Julien later remarked had appeared as though he had drank from the fountain of youth before the game had started.
But it was Tatar who made things happen on Monday against the team that drafted him nine years ago, just as he has consistently done through Montreal’s first five games.
He scored the goal that gave the Canadiens a 3-1 lead with just nine second remaining in the first period, and he helped them blow things wide open in the second by assisting on two of the next three goals.
Suffice it to say Tatar looks nothing like the guy who put up only six points after the Golden Knights traded a first, second and third-round pick for at last year’s deadline; nothing like the guy who was scratched for all but eight games of Vegas’s 20-game run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. You know, the guy Canadiens fans thought they were getting when the Golden Knights were even willing to retain $1.5 million of the $15.9 million in salary he’s owed until his contract expires in 2021.
“When you talk about the key to the deal, you traded away a guy who scored 30-plus goals for many years here,” said Julien. “You get a Tatar who can come in right away and give you 20-25 goals. It’s what he’s been basically doing [throughout his career] so I think he was a pretty big part of the deal as well.”
You wouldn’t know it from the scuttlebutt around town when Tatar arrived.
“I would be pretending if I said I didn’t hear it,” he said. “But you know, you always hear negative people more than positive ones.”
Given what Tatar has done of late, that’s likely to change.