A couple of years ago, I wrote an article on Alex Galchenyuk after a poor performance versus the Calgary Flames. Galchenyuk lost a battle on the boards in the defensive zone. Actually, “lost” might not be the accurate term. He didn’t engage in that battle. Instead of sealing the puck from opponents to prevent a steal, he tried to scoop it and run away, allowing a Flames player to lift the disc and orchestrate the tying goal. It was not the first time such a thing happened with Galchenyuk, and so the benching that followed didn’t surprise anyone.
Tomas Tatar’s benching is not as easy to understand.
The best way to explain it is that the team’s standards have changed. Claude Julien said just that in the post-game presser. A slight drop in performance that might have been acceptable two years ago is no longer tolerated. In 2020-21, the Montreal Canadiens have more NHL-calibre players — effective NHL-calibre players — on their roster. Whoever performs best, plays. That is even more true when it comes to the wingers on the team, a position for which there are more candidates.
This is a welcome change overall; the sign of a healthy, competitive organization. It also means hard decisions for the coaching staff. They now base their lineup choices on details. And by details, I don’t mean a blown assignment that leads to a goal. I mean a few wrong steps to the left or to the right, a few poorly received pucks or missed passes. Young players typically get more leeway, but veteran wingers can’t afford any dips in performance.
Tatar wasn’t performing badly in the past few games. In fact, when I did my research for this article, I clipped more than a few sequences that showed drive, work ethic, high skill, and defensive engagement. But those qualities wavered more than usual.
He mismanaged a few pucks in dangerous locations: at the top of the offensive zone, where an opponent can easily intercept a pass and break away, and on the walls of the defensive zone. He wasn’t necessarily pressured in those locations, but simply lacked a bit of concentration and touch. The team expected a clean pass, a clean breakout, a clean zone entry, but was forced to scramble back in defensive positions or to line up for a faceoff after a fumbled puck. Sometimes, Tatar also killed the offensive play by drifting too high or holding on to the puck too long.
These mistakes were collected over four games, and I probably could have made a similar video for many of the Habs forwards. That being said, Tatar is a veteran of nine NHL seasons and a member of the first line, a trio that is known for playing a strong, controlled brand of hockey. The winger strayed away from that identity.
Another element that probably didn’t play in his favour was his lower level of energy on the backcheck, a strong aspect of his play in previous seasons. A few times over the last few games, he arrived last in the defensive-zone picture after being the highest forward in the offensive zone (F3). His linemates simply beat him in the track-back race. There were some extenuating circumstances sometimes; he was closer to the end of his shift and got a bit tangled up with an opposing defenceman. But I think it is probably fair to say that, after the scoring woes of the team and his own, Tatar was focused on generating offence, on staying a few steps above the rest of the team to try and beat opposing defencemen off the mark in the neutral zone.
We only have access to what the broadcast camera shows, and Claude Julien only ever offers so much on where players stand in relation to the team. There could be more to the whole situation than we know.
Whatever the full story is, this benching will surely have a positive effect not just on Tatar, who will likely bounce back in a significant way, but also on the whole team. It sets the standard. If players didn’t know the expectations coming into the season, this made it clear. For the veteran core of the team, the time for projection and patience is in the past. There is internal competition and results are all that matters.