Krupa: Wings' Tatar needs to strive for stardom now

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Tomas Tatar’s Corsi (puck control) statistics have been falling over the past three seasons.

Detroit — They put their Tuna in a can for another four seasons.

Tomas Tatar will remain with the Red Wings until he is 30, through much of the prime of his career.

The Wings would love to see him open a second offensive front to augment the one lead by Henrik Zetterberg, the guy who often calls Tatar “Tuna,” instead of “Tats.”

Tatar entered dreaded arbitration with the Wings last week, before settling for a four-year $21.2 million deal, with an added dividend of $6 million paid this year. That is a year-to-year increase of more than 100 percent over his $2.75 million salary of last season.

At the hearing, Tatar and his agent, Ritch Winter, argued that Tatar is a good player and asserted why. The Red Wings argued that he is not quite that good and asserted why not.

Earlier in the week Wings coach Jeff Blashill said he was not concerned about how the negotiations would affect his top goal scorer once Tatar’s in camp.

Indeed, Tatar said the counter-assertions from the Wings mostly left him nonplussed.

“In your brief, you feel like you’re the best player in the world,” the 26-year-old veteran of four full seasons said. “And in their brief, they try to find the ways on the ice where you’re not playing as good.

“You know,” the native of Ilava, Slovakia, said, “you have to go listen with one ear in, and one ear out. I didn’t try to think about it, to worry about it too much.”

Focus on detail

Masters of Buddhist thought could not have expressed it more efficiently: Whatever it is, it comes and goes.

But wisdom also suggests considering those who identify faults as benevolent teachers. And, at the dawn of the prime of his career, the Red Wings’ top goal scorer can improve.

This is no time to proceed apace.

It is time for Tatar to press towards excellence.

Tomas Tatar

More consistent play offensively could regularly lead to 30-plus goals, after he produced 19, 29, 21 and 25 in his first four seasons of regular play.

Better puck possession by the 5-foot-10, 185-pound forward would help that cause, as well as his team’s efforts to win more games.

It is not so much that the small forward is muscled off the puck.

Maintaining possession simply requires more care.

The periodic unforced error and errant pass seem more a matter of Tatar’s attention to detail than a lack of physicality.

While Corsi might not be an entirely reliable proxy for puck possession, in Tatar’s case the advanced statistic supports what the eyes see.

That Tatar’s Corsi-for percentage dropped from 64.6 to 56.3 in the past three seasons recommends better consideration when possessing the puck.

Another means of improving his game is defense, and if he played it better it would likely help his offense, too.

It certainly would help the Wings win more.

Marking opponents well and remaining in the flow of play has a way of translating into better reactions and good positioning when play goes the other way, too.

Tatar’s greater attention to detail and better performance of the stuff that sometimes strikes goal scorers as incidental would also help accomplish one of the Red Wings’ most important initiatives going forward.

Star search

The transition from the last Stanley Cup winner to the next one in Detroit is approaching a tender stage, with the aging of Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall following the departure of Pavel Datsyuk.

Tatar is among those currently most essential to filling the breach.

He could occupy considerably more space there if he scored more while performing better at the particulars of play.

If Tatar does that, he will give something the Red Wings desperately need even before Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha are prepared to take their best shot at providing it.

The Wings must have a star beside Zetterberg. They must have a star who can eventually replace him.

And they likely require two stars to play in their first conference finals in nine seasons and counting.

I wrote a column a few seasons ago saying it looked like Tatar and Gustav Nyquist might have the juice to provide acceptable reinforcements when Zetterberg and Datsyuk are gone.

They regressed.

But Tatar’s late-season resurgence, including when he played with Zetterberg, and Nyquist’s career-high 36 assists — one-third more than his previous best, and in six fewer games played — were hopeful signs amid a dreary season.

Meanwhile, having secured a long stretch at the start of his career with the Red Wings and having proved himself a good player, it is time for Tatar to test whether excellence is attainable.

Like all NHL players, Tatar is a product of eternal winnowing.

He proved himself in youth hockey. He proved himself in junior hockey. He proved himself in international competition.

He proved himself in Grand Rapids more than he had to because that is the Wings’ way and Mike Babcock coached the club then.

He proved himself as a regular in the NHL.

Can Tatar now offer more proof?

If he does, by the time the next negotiations roll around, he will be a star and prime leader of the Red Wings.

He will be a keeper of the flame.

At 30, given how the Red Wings’ rebuild now appears scheduled, with Athanasiou, Larkin and Mantha four years older, wiser and inured in the ways of the NHL, Tatar in a starring role might lead to something big.

But it starts with opening a second front on offense, away from the man who calls him Tuna.

And it requires attention to detail.