With the Pittsburgh Penguins not having a lot of cap space, a lot of people will think that they don’t have time to go out into the open market and sign a free agent. However, with the Seattle Kraken destined to take a player off their hands, and the fact that Ron Hextall has no loyalty to most of these players, Pittsburgh could feasibly make enough room to be a player in free agency. That brings us to Tomas Tatar.
He’s going to be hitting the open market after another rock-solid regular season with the Montreal Canadiens. He had 10 goals and 30 points in 50 games, though was a healthy scratch for most of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He didn’t get a chance to show what he’s fully capable of, and in Pittsburgh, that wouldn’t be a problem. Here’s a look at why Tatar and the Penguins look like a perfect match.
He gets to the prime scoring areas
Throughout his career, Tatar has made a knack for going to the high-danger areas and producing. For reference, here’s his isolated 5v5 impact, courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy’s site HockeyViz:
The redder an area is, the more chances a player is getting. Tatar’s been excellent in front of the net and it helped him put up 57 goals and 149 points in 198 career games with Montreal. This doesn’t look like a player that should be getting health-scratched in the playoffs for “reasons.”
This is further evidenced by his SKATR Chart on Evolving Hockey, where they tracked all of his action in the offensive zone this season:
Even though Tatar only had 10 goals in 50 games, I would chalk that up to being more bad luck than anything else. He had plenty of shots from areas that he scored in, but the puck didn’t go into the net. Sometimes, that’s the way hockey goes and none could relate more to this than Jake Guentzel. Guentzel was the whipping boy among fans after the Penguins lost to the Islanders because he didn’t score, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He led the team in high-danger chances for and individual scoring chances for at even-strength in those six playoff games. Like Tatar, the puck wasn’t going in like normal which leads to skewed perceptions of a player who’s been otherwise very productive.
Contract will be relatively inexpensive
With Tatar not producing as much this season (compared to his last two 20 goal seasons), this looks like a deal that’s primed to be a “prove it contract.” Cody Ceci did something similar with the Penguins this season after struggling in both Ottawa and Toronto. He signed a one-year $1.25M contract and played the best hockey of his career and now he’s going to cash out because of it. The same can be said of Kevin Shattenkirk when he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019. He took one of those “prove it” deals and had his best season in a few years and got rewarded the next year with a three-year contract from the Anaheim Ducks.
The Penguins are in a position to do this again with Tatar and it wouldn’t mess up their salary cap situation. They’re not going to have to get into a large-scale bidding war for him since Tatar isn’t likely going to break the bank. For a franchise with a window rapidly closing, you need all the good-value contracts you can get and this one would likely certainly qualify.
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Jason Zucker’s Replacement
It’s no secret that Zucker struggled mightily for the Penguins this past season. He had just nine goals and 18 points in 38 games and also battled confidence issues throughout the season. It seemed like every time he came into the zone with the puck, he’d be pass first, instead of being selfish. He’s also under contract for two more seasons at $5.5M per, so he’s making way too much money for the value that he brings to the team.
Tatar would be everything the Penguins have needed on the second line & then some. Here’s an even deeper look at his work from the past three seasons:
The higher a player is on the positive side, the more he’s doing to help his team win. He not only provides great value at 5V5, but he can also help contribute to the man-advantage as well. When we compare this to how Zucker has been the last three years, it’s not even close:
Zucker provides negative value at both even-strength and on the man-advantage. When he’s on the ice, Pittsburgh is conceding more chances at the other end of the rink, which isn’t beneficial. With Tatar on the ice, his team had the puck in the offensive zone virtually every shift, which led to three expected goals for at 5v5 and close to two actual goals for.
This would also go a long way for Evgeni Malkin. When Malkin is at his best, he’s knifing through players left and right trying to set up his linemates. It’s the biggest reason why James Neal was able to score 40 goals on his line eight years ago. The same can be said when Phil Kessel played on his line and was a point-per-game player. Tatar is close to a pure finisher like those two and would be the best winger Pittsburgh has had on that line since Kessel left.
The bottom line
This coming season is probably the last best chance for the Penguins to win another Stanley Cup in the Crosby/Malkin era. Because of that, they need to go all-in before some tough decisions are made in the following offseason on numerous players. There’s no time to settle and go bargain hunting for another Mark Jankowski with so many great players available. Getting a player like Tatar would go a long way for Pittsburgh to be a strong contender next season.