NEWARK, N.J. — On Friday night at the Prudential Center, Tomas Tatar will play in his first regular-season game for his new club, the Devils. The last time he played in a meaningful game was 141 days ago, which means it’s been almost four months since he laced up the skates and hit the ice in the Canadiens’ fifth game of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs first-round series against the Maple Leafs.
But didn’t Montreal play into July? Yes, but Tatar spent it watching from the stands.
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“Out of nowhere, to be honest, the coaches made this decision which I respected,” he said during media day with his new club. Tatar played the first five games against Toronto and then sat the rest of the way. “We had a hell of a run in the playoffs. Obviously, you’re upset, you wanted to play and I think I could help the team, especially in the final, but I had to respect the decision.”
The decision was, well, a head-scratcher. Then-interim coach Dominique Ducharme made a guy who had led the team in scoring over the course of the three seasons he was there (149 points in 198 games) a healthy scratch. How good was Tatar for Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge? He had 21 points more than the second guy, defenseman Jeff Petry, and of his 149 points — which he collected at a tear of 0.75 per game —119 were at even strength.
“He’s been a proven top-three or four scorer on the teams he’s been on. He’s great at getting open. He’s great at finding the people that are open. He knows where to be,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said.
Tatar was never given a reason why the decision was made. As he noted, the time wasn’t right with the Canadiens in a Cup Final run. He was being the ultimate team player. Was he upset? Absolutely. He wanted to help his club, especially in the final against the Lightning, who dominated the Canadiens in five games. But he accepted the decision.
“The first call I made was to [Canadiens GM] Marc Bergevin to talk about the person and when Marc Bergevin … tells me he may be the greatest person he’s managed, that says a lot about a kid’s character,” Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald said on media day, noting that they brought Tatar in not only for his on-ice production but as a veteran presence in the room.
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And Tatar knows his role with the Devils is a duality.
In August, he signed a two-year contract with the club for $9 million. As one of three guys on the roster who is 30 or older (he turns 31 in December; P.K. Subban is 32; Jonathan Bernier is 33), he’s expected to be a mentor to the youngsters and to bring, as he said, “a winning mentality.” He’s also expected to be a point producer, showcasing the skill that saw him post at least 30 points every season since his first full lap in 2013-14 with the Red Wings.
“He’s really good. He’s really good both ways, defensive and offensive guy and he’s a really skilled player in the league for a long time and someone we really need,” Pavel Zacha said of his new teammate, who not only put up points but was also on a shutdown with Phillip Danault (now with the Kings) and Brendan Gallagher in Montreal. “He’s a great guy in the locker room, wants to win and stuff so it’s great to have players like that on our team.”
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Standing in front of the media on the first day of training camp, Tatar had a big smile when chatting. After a year spent north of the border solely in Canada and without fans, he is ready for 2021-22. He said he was “personally suffering” as a guy who feeds on the energy fans bring. He’s ready to move past the “awful” 2021 season in which the Canadiens often went coast-to-coast to play the other six Canadian teams.
He’s ready to wipe the slate clean; last year is last year, but, yeah, he has an extra chip on his shoulder.
And did he learn anything from how 2021 ended?
“Players make mistakes. Coaches make mistakes. My job is to show how big a mistake that was.”