There was no mistaking the lynchpin of the swap that sent Max Pacioretty from the Montreal Canadiens to the Vegas Golden Knights. It was Nick Suzuki, who Vegas had selected little more than one year earlier with the 13th-overall pick at the 2017 draft. The high-scoring, smooth-skating, two-way pivot was the big get, the highlight of a three-piece package. Polled in the immediate aftermath of the swap what the second-most important part of the return was, too, some certainly would have said the second-round pick. And that would have left veteran winger Tomas Tatar with the dubious distinction as the throw-in of the transaction.
That’s not to say Tatar didn’t play an important role in the swap at the time. He did…financially speaking. It was Tatar’s contract that helped make the trade a reality. By moving out Tatar’s $5.3-million cap hit – which only came after Vegas retained $500,000 in each of the three seasons remaining – the Golden Knights were able to free up enough space to add Pacioretty’s $4.5-million cap hit to the books, helped along, of course, by the Canadiens retaining $400,000 of the final season of their former captain’s current contract.
Beyond that, though, Tatar was an afterthought. Not without reason, either. Though he had played well throughout his tenure with the Detroit Red Wings prior to landing in Vegas, he managed only four goals and six assists in 20 regular season game as a Golden Knight, adding another two points in eight playoff games when he saw time outside of the press box. Thus, the 28-year-old was largely seen as a veteran chip who could play some middle-six minutes on a team primed for some rebuilding years. Not much more, not much less. Those were the expectations.
How laughable that seems now. Six games into the season, Tatar had already matched his output from his time in Vegas. By the 20th game, he was a near point per game player. Come mid-season, he had cracked the 30-point plateau. And Tuesday night in Montreal, Tatar put the cherry on top of what has been an excellent comeback campaign, slotting home two goals and picking up an assist to set a new career-high with 57 points on the campaign. He’s been a fixture of Montreal’s top six, ranks second in scoring in Montreal behind only Max Domi and his 68-point output and if Tatar continues to score as he has throughout the campaign, he’s primed to end this season by eclipsing the 60-point plateau for the first time in his six full seasons in the NHL.
More impressive about Tatar’s offensive production, however, is that when measured against the player for whom he was made a throw-in, Pacioretty, the Canadiens’ winger comes out ahead. Say what you will for small samples or single-season outputs, but the 2018-19 stat sheet has Tatar in front by three goals (25-22), 15 assists (32-17) and 18 points (57-39). When adjusted for per-game measures – worthwhile given Tatar has played 75 games to Pacioretty’s 61 contests – Tatar still holds the edge in assists (.43-.28) and points (.76-.64), while Pacioretty only narrowly inches ahead in goals (.36-.33).
Tatar has exceeded expectations aside from his statistical output, too. On a Canadiens’ club that plays Claude Julien’s possession game to near perfection and boasts among the best 5-on-5 underlying numbers of any team in the NHL, Tatar has excelled as a play-driving forward. In fact, he’s arguably been the best – or at least one of the best – play-driving forwards in the league.
Of the 300 players who have skated at least 650 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Tatar ranks second in Corsi percentage (58.8), second in shots percentage (57.9), second in scoring chance percentage (58.8) and first, by more than one-third of a percentage point, in goals for percentage (67.1). It’s not as though Tatar has benefitted from sheltered zone starts, either. According to Natural Stat Trick, he has a 45.1 percent offensive zone start percentage, and only 52 of the 300 forwards with 650 minutes or more at 5-on-5 have started a lower percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone.
Realistically, those numbers are so spectacular that Tatar has reason to find himself in the Selke Trophy conversation. Will he win the award? No. He won’t come close for a few reasons. First, voters have shown an inclination to throw their support behind centers, not wingers. That’s going to hurt his candidacy. He’s also rarely, if ever, utilized in shorthanded situations, skating a grand total of 2:32 while down a skater this season. Then there’s the matter of league-wide support, which Tatar most certainly does not have. He’s not considered a top contender for the award, not mentioned alongside Patrice Bergeron or Aleksander Barkov or Sidney Crosby. But his two-way play has still been spectacular this season, and it warrants more than passing mention.
And when you look at the entire package, if this is the Tatar the Canadiens continue to get – through the remainder of this season, on through next season and until he wraps up his contract at the end of the 2020-21 campaign – it might turn out that his inclusion, a once-overlooked aspect of the Pacioretty swap, is what makes us look back on the trade as a hands-down victory for Montreal.