April 18, 2014 at 8:49 pm

John Niyo

For Tomas Tatar, and Red Wings, patience pays off

Kulfan and Niyo on Red Wings-Bruins
Kulfan and Niyo on Red Wings-Bruins: Ted Kulfan and John Niyo of The Detroit News discuss the Red Wings' first-round matchup against the Bruins.

Detroit — Tomas Tatar was here and then he was gone.

And while he was there, he couldn’t help but wonder. Not just what he was missing. But what the Red Wings were missing, too, with the feisty goal scorer exiled to Grand Rapids a month before the Stanley Cup Playoffs began last spring.

“It was a pretty rough ending to the season,” Tatar said, reflecting on last year’s disappointment on the eve of his NHL postseason debut in Boston. “In my mind, I thought I could be here. So it was really hard to focus and stay with it, being in Grand Rapids. I got a little frustrated, I won’t lie.”

Truth is, Tatar took out his frustrations on the rest of the American Hockey League, carrying the Griffins to a Calder Cup championship and earning playoff MVP honors as he led the league with 16 goals in 24 games. He used the demotion as “a spark,” he says, and almost immediately started lighting it up.

“That’s where he really took his game to another level,” said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who had no choice this season but to elevate Tatar, who was out of minor-league options, to a full-time role in Detroit.

No excuse, either, though from the start of his time in this organization, the Red Wings always had viewed Tatar as another potential draft-day steal: A first-round talent they’d snagged late in the second round in 2009.

He impressed right away in Grand Rapids as the youngest player in the AHL, having bypassed the OHL, where he would’ve played for the Plymouth Whalers on a line with Tyler Seguin, the top prospect in the 2010 draft.

Tatar was one of the Griffins’ top two scorers the next two seasons, played well for his native Slovakia at a pair of World Championships, and in a brief stint in Detroit he actually scored his first NHL goal in his first game — on his first shot, no less.

But when he began the lockout-shortened 2013 season still mired in the minors, he started to get a bit impatient.

“I was thinking, ‘What would happen if I’m on a different team? What would happen if I’d already played a year in the NHL?’ ” he said. “I was, for sure, thinking that.”

But now?

“At this moment,” Tatar says, “if you ask me, ‘Would I change anything?’ No, I probably wouldn’t.”

Worth the wait

That’s because he’s finally getting his shot, and making something of it, playing on a line with fellow youngsters Riley Sheahen and either Gustav Nyquist or Tomas Jurco.

It’s a line that’ll need to be a difference-maker if the Red Wings are going to make a serious upset bid against the Presidents’ Trophy winners. The Bruins boast the deepest forward corps in the league, a Vezina Trophy candidate in net, and a blue line anchored by monster defenseman Zdeno Chara.

And rookies, as we all know, often struggle out of the gate in the playoffs.

“But these kids have played in the Calder Cup — it’s playoff hockey,” coach Mike Babcock insisted. “I’m not concerned about them one bit. They know you have to battle for every inch of the ice.”

Every minute of ice time, too, which helps prepare them for this. Or at least that’s the Red Wings’ age-old strategy, however outdated it might seem today.

Tatar got a taste of the NHL last season, acquitting himself well enough with four goals in 18 games before getting sent down, effectively exchanging roster spots with Nyquist. A bit too careless, both with the puck and his defensive responsibilities — that was the issue.

Last fall, with a logjam of veterans in front of him, Tatar still had to get past that. He began the season as a healthy scratch in eight of the Wings’ first nine games.

“You have to be able to earn the coach’s trust, and at the start of the year I had to wait for my chance,” said Tatar, who finally scored his first goal Oct. 30 — a winner at Vancouver that ended a four-game skid for Detroit. “My chance came, and I held it. You have to build that trust and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Ready to shine

What he does is what every team needs this time of year. Tatar plays with passion, and he scores goals, finishing second on the team with 19 this season. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound winger has good instincts and better hands, and he’s eager to play in traffic. Too eager, at times.

“The stage doesn’t affect him,” said Holland, who often compares Tatar to ex-Wings forward Jiri Hudler. “He loves to play hockey. He wants the puck. He wants to be the guy. And he wants to score.”

The stage is set for him to do just that now. He laughed Wednesday when a reporter jokingly asked him about making a run at back-to-back playoff MVP honors. But he got serious when he talked about the opportunity that awaits.

“Obviously, it’s the playoffs — this is what you battle for,” Tatar said. “But so far it hasn’t hit me. I’m not nervous. I’m just going to take it like another game. I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait.”

This time, thankfully, he won’t have to.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Detroit's Tomas Tatar and Boston's Johnny Boychuk battle for the puck in the first period on April 2. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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