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The Canadiens must soon decide what to do with Tomas Tatar

After being scratched against the Leafs, it’s worth wondering about the winger’s future with the Canadiens.

NHL: FEB 02 Canucks at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We must never forget how the Montreal Canadiens acquired Tomas Tatar. He was essentially a cap dump for the Vegas Golden Knights in order for them to be able to afford their contract extension on the incoming Max Pacioretty. Few could have predicted how much found money Tatar was actually worth when he was acquired.

He had a career year with 58 points over 80 games in 2018-19. He followed that up with yet another career year of 61 points in 2019-20, this time in just 68 games. With just eight points in 14 contests this year, he’s cooled off a bit, but is still producing at a better rate than you’d expect from a player whose previous team had to eat salary just to get rid of him. To this day, Las Vegas retains a cool half-million of Tatar’s $5.3-million average annual value (AAV). But that is about to come to an end, as the Slovak winger will be an unrestricted free agent this off-season.

For as much noise as Tatar has made on the ice, it has been complete silence when it comes to any contract or trade talks. At least as far as what has been publicly released, we don’t even know if the two sides have sat down to discuss terms.

Interestingly enough, this past Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tatar was a healthy scratch. Claude Julien essentially confirmed thereafter that it was performance related, but as our own David St-Louis put it, the benching was not easy to understand given Tatar’s performance thus far. Perhaps the bar has simply been raised, but it begs the question of what the plan is for his future.

In his media availability yesterday, Tatar was asked point blank by Arpon Basu if a benching like Saturday’s weighs more on him due to this being a contract year. “I’m not too worried about it,” he responded. “I’ve played my years in the league and you know if you do stuff right this kind of stuff takes care of itself.”

As right as he may be about that, the situation in Montreal might be a little more complicated than just earning what he may deserve based on his performance.

The dollars and cents of any deal keeping Tatar in Montreal will be incredibly important. The Habs have Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Phillip Danault, and Joel Armia up for contracts at the end of the year, and Nick Suzuki is up one year after that. Add in the fact that Brendan Gallagher’s new $6.5-million AAV kicks in next year, and it’s easy to see how important cost control will be.

For comparative purposes, here are all of the forward deals signed in the last two years. Tatar turned 30 in December, so I’ve kept this list to those aged 28-32 at the time of their signing.

2019-21 Signings

Player Team Age at signing Length AAV
Player Team Age at signing Length AAV
Jakob Silfverberg Anaheim 28 5 years $5.25 million
Anders Lee Islanders 28 7 years $7 million
Matt Duchene Predators 28 7 years $8 million
Marcus Johansson Sabres 28 2 years $4.5 million
Jordan Eberle Islanders 29 5 years $5.5 million
Gustav Nyquist Blue Jackets 29 4 years $5.5 million
Mats Zuccarello Wild 31 5 years $6 million
Wayne Simmonds Devils 30 1 year $5 million
Chris Kreider Rangers 28 7 years $6.5 million
Nicklas Backstrom Capitals 32 5 years $9.2 million
Taylor Hall Buffalo 28 1 year $8 million
Tyler Toffoli Canadiens 28 4 years $4.25 million
Brendan Gallagher Canadiens 28 6 years $6.5 million
Evgeni Dadonov Senators 31 3 years $5 million
Mikael Granlund Predators 28 1 year $3.75 million
Mike Hoffman Blues 31 1 year $4 million

It may interest you to know that none of the players listed above scored more points in 2019-20 than Tatar, so if his agent focuses on comparable production, he has a case for a significant raise. That being said, Mike Hoffman was the closest at 59 points, and the best he could get in this pandemic year was one year for $4 million, so the caveat to that argument is that points aren’t necessarily paramount to a hypothetical contract’s value.

Players like Anders Lee, Chris Kreider, and Gallagher are being rewarded for their perceived value to their respective teams, which is not always mutually inclusive with point-production. Tatar’s agent would certainly point to these three as examples for his salary demands — he outscored all three last season and could do so again — but outscoring those tenured guys doesn’t guarantee you more, or even the same money that they get.

Bergevin would likely counter by pointing to Tyler Toffoli. Yes, he who replaced Tatar on Montreal’s top line while the latter was scratched, and has a sparkling 15 points in as many games this season. He’s signed at just a $4.25-million AAV, and for the time being at least he looks to have taken Tatar’s spot. If the negotiation centres around point production, it’ll be hard to justify Tatar getting Gallagher money if he ends the year on the third line with Toffoli outscoring him in his old spot.

Evolving Hockey’s contract prediction tool allows us to take a look at what Tatar might cost on an extension. Their model predicts his average cap hit on anything from one to eight years as being $6.539 million. The longer the deal, the higher the predicted AAV goes, so an eight-year deal — which we can assume is highly unlikely given Marc Bergevin’s history — would be just over $7 million against the cap.

An ideal scenario for the Canadiens is one where he accepts a Toffoli-esque deal for four years and less than $5 million per. This would be a coup for Bergevin, but would require Tatar to leave money on the table that he could fetch on the open market. That’s a tough ask since this will be his first chance at a UFA deal, and possibly his last chance to really cash in depending on its length and what he can accomplish during it.

Evolving Hockey’s model — as well as the general logic that players in his situation want to cash in — dictate that a Toffoli-esque deal is unlikely for Tatar. Maybe he’s willing to take a discount to help the Habs remain competitive, but such a discount would serve to make him a very attractive target for the expansion Seattle Kraken. As such, he may find it best to wait things out and see what the other 31 teams are prepared to offer him.

And of course, if the main focus is to avoid losing him for nothing in the off-season, Bergevin has but one alternative. He can pursue a trade either to bolster the team’s depth, or add to his already impressive prospect pool.

In previous years, when the team was way down in the standings, I was quite in favour of trading Tatar. I’m less so at this stage, because the Canadiens appear playoff bound and may require him for a run once there. It doesn’t seem logical to trade for futures with the Tricolore being in their current position.

Bergevin has made some undeniably great trades during his tenure, and it would be another feather in his cap to turn Tatar into future assets for the organization. But it’s hard to envision a situation where he can make a trade involving Tatar that improves the club right now. Unless the feeling is that the answers for his production are already in-house (like Toffoli being enough to permanently replace him at the top of the lineup — it seems imperative to keep him.

Even if there is a deal out there involving an incoming player that actually improves the Canadiens for a playoff run, it won’t be easy. There are quarantine rules to respect, not to mention the fact that the Canadiens are a little tight to the cap. They should have a little deadline flexibility, but likely not enough to make a big splash.

I don’t envy Bergevin’s position with Tatar. His best bet may actually be to do nothing, and if he ends up losing Tatar to free agency in the off-season, it will be hard for anyone to truly fault him for not hanging on to the overachieving throw-in from a deal that was centred around getting Nick Suzuki.

At the end of the day, Tatar is found money, so if the profit from that is a long playoff run over future assets, Habs fans will easily live it down.