MONTREAL — It might have been the most telling sign that, when he was asked on Tuesday to reflect on two career-seasons he’s authored with the Montreal Canadiens, Tomas Tatar pointed primarily to the fact that he’s been the beneficiary of fitting so well with linemates Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher.
Of course we understand that’s just the most hockey thing imaginable to say, and that NHL players, by and large, are allergic to patting themselves on the back.
If Tatar won’t say it, we will: The fact that he’s been able to put up 47 goals and 119 points in 148 games since landing with the Canadiens in the 2018 trade that sent Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights has as much to do with his skill and his determination as it does with any other factor.
But we won’t deny Tatar’s unique perspective, which was shaped over seven successful seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, 101 days of dysfunction with the Golden Knights, and these two pinnacle seasons with the Canadiens. There may be no player more qualified to talk about the value of fit than one who went from a great situation with the team who drafted him to one where nothing seemed to work after the Golden Knights traded a first-, a second- and a third-round pick to acquire him.
That Tatar was able to immediately resurrect his career alongside Danault and Gallagher after he scored just four goals and six points in 20 games and was a healthy scratch for all but eight games in Vegas’ run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final certainly reinforced the importance of fit to him. And that’s particularly relevant at this juncture as it’s a fact that could ultimately rule how he approaches what’s supposed to be the most lucrative opportunity of his career.
“To be honest, as I was looking at different players and different teams, I started to realize it more and more how important it is to fit to the team and to the system,” the 29-year-old, who’s a year away from becoming an unrestricted free agent, said from his home in Slovakia.
“I’m having probably the best time of my life right now in Montreal. Since I got there, I’m really enjoying our locker room and our team and our fans and it’s something I’m really excited to get back. So, I’m really enjoying it. The fit—that I play with Phil and Gally—it’s fit perfectly for me, and I’m really enjoying playing with the guys. And so far it’s been really good for me.”
Of course, there are many other factors for Tatar to consider as he gets closer and closer to what could be his last opportunity to sign a high-paying, long-term contract. This was going to be a complicated decision to begin with, but now the COVID-19 pandemic has turned it into a total conundrum.
It’s a most precarious position to be in for any player at the moment, but particularly for players who have finally earned status as highly-coveted free agents; it’s unimaginable the pause of the current season, and the uncertainty hanging over a resumption of play any time soon, will have anything but an adverse effect on hockey-related revenue and the salary cap moving forward.
First-world problem, we know, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Under normal circumstances, a player like Tatar would be trending towards fielding multiple long-term offers from various teams. But these are anything but normal circumstances, and the reality of a flat or decreasing cap doing anything but hurting players in Tatar’s position is impossible to ignore.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking about it.
We’d imagine the Canadiens are thinking about it, too.
Whereas Montreal GM Marc Bergevin had decided it was worth the risk of not trading Tatar at the Feb. 24 trade deadline (when his value was at its highest and he was in the process of likely pricing himself out of Montreal come summer 2021), now he must be thinking the Canadiens have a shot at keeping their leading scorer for even longer than the one more season he was under contract for.
And if Bergevin was hoping to perhaps entice Tatar to stay beyond next season based on how good the fit has been, if he was hoping to keep him from chasing a deal the Canadiens wouldn’t be willing to give him, he might have an easier time doing that with Tatar having even less assurance of what might be available to him on the open market.]
What Tatar does know only helps Bergevin’s cause, if that’s the case.
“We’ve become really good friends off the ice,” the Slovak said about Danault and Gallagher, who are also pending unrestricted free agents come summer of 2021, but players considered core members of the Canadiens now—and moving forward. “I think we’re… since day one when I got here, we were talking what each role is on the ice and how we can help each other to be better, and we are all three listening to each other if somebody has something to say and trying to help each other on the ice.
“Phil is a great two-way centre playing on both sides of the ice, and Brendan is a great player around the net and good goal-scorer, so everyone has a certain role on the line. And I think we’re all trying to play in all three zones on the ice, so I think we’re helping each other a lot everywhere on the ice, which helps everybody on the line. I think when we’re together, mainly we have a lot of fun, which is good. Hockey for us is fun and that should be the priority.”
Hockey wasn’t particularly fun for Tatar in Vegas.
But as he put it on Tuesday, “I’ve really enjoyed the hockey (in Montreal) since day one.”
That Canadiens coach Claude Julien put Tatar with Danault and Gallagher from the start, and that he’s kept him there for the most part since, had played an enormous role in that.
And if it really is Tatar’s priority to keep having fun, the possibility of pursuing his career alongside Danault and Gallagher might ultimately persuade him to remain with the Canadiens beyond next season. The value of that known commodity is likely higher now in the face of so much unknown.