When the NHL trade deadline rolled around the Vegas Golden Knights were in the surprising — or maybe you prefer shocking — position of being buyers. They were at the top of the Western Conference, they were clearly emerging as contenders, and they were in the market for some help. There were rumors of a big splash involving Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, but when that never materialized they ended up sending three draft picks to the Detroit Red Wings for forward Tomas Tatar.
Down the stretch run of the regular season and through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs the trade had produced a rather underwhelming return with Tatar recording just six points in his first 24 games with the team and finding himself as a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs. He played very limited minutes when he was in the lineup.
He was given another chance to make an impact of Game 2 of the Western Conference Final on Monday night and did just that in the Golden Knights’ 3-1 win to help them even their series with the Winnipeg Jets at one game apiece.
Was he Vegas’ best player on Monday? No, he was not. That honor would have to go to either goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for holding off the Jets’ offense and making several big saves, or perhaps Jonathan Marchessault for scoring two more goals to continue his incredible season.
But that does not mean that Tatar did not play a big role in the win.
He scored his first goal of the playoffs late in the first period when he was able to finish off a wonderful individual effort around the net to finally jam the puck in behind Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
That gave the Golden Knights the game’s first goal and helped them slow down what had been an incredibly fast start by the Jets where they were initially carrying the play.
Vegas’ decision to trade for Tatar was seen as a bit of a risk because even with its first-year success it was still an expansion team that is building from the ground up and is going to need as many assets as it can get to keep accumulating talent. General manager George McPhee did a masterful job in the expansion draft process utilizing trades and deals to acquire as many future assets as he could, which probably made it easier to part with so many of them. He was able to turn three of them, including their own 2018 first-round pick into Tatar.
At this point that is going to be either the 28th, 29th, 30th or 31st pick in this year’s draft, a second-rounder next year (a pick that previously belonged to the New York Islanders and was acquired, along with the Islanders’ 2017 first-round pick, as one of those expansion draft deals), and a third-round pick three years from now. Not exactly a ton of risk involved there, especially after Vegas had three first-round picks in 2017.
Even though Tatar had not yet made much of an impact until Game 2 on Monday night it was still a gamble worth taking for Vegas. Not only has he been a 20-goal scorer in each of the past four seasons (and he scored 19 in only 73 games the year before that run started), he is still signed for another three years after this one. The latter point is important because Vegas could potentially lose a couple of unrestricted free agent forwards this summer, including James Neal and David Perron. Both players have been vital cogs in Vegas’ machine this season and if they move on the Golden Knights going to need to find some top-six wingers to replace them. Tatar could end up being one of them. In that sense it is somewhat fitting that Tatar only got back into the lineup on Monday night because Perron could not go for Vegas.
He only ended up playing 10 minutes again on Monday, but he made the most of them by scoring a goal, attempted four shots (putting two on net), while the Golden Knights attempted 74 percent of the total shot attempts (11 for, only four against) with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play, the best mark of any Vegas player.
It was just an all-around solid game.
His track record in the NHL indicates he has far more to offer than what he has showed so far in his brief time with the Golden Knights. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of time for a player to get completely settled with a new team.
On Monday he delivered a little bit of what Vegas was hoping when it acquired him at just the right time.