Of the many things that stood out about the Pittsburgh Penguins trade for Erik Karlsson, one of the wildest is how it actually cut down on their salary cap commitment for the 2023-24 NHL season. That, combined with the fact that Jake Guentzel is not likely to be ready for the start of the season has created the possibility for them to add another forward before the regular season begins.
From a hockey standpoint, Tatar makes a ton of sense for the Penguins. He has the ability to play a top line role, he is one of the leagues best possession drivers at forward, and he is a much better defensive player than you might realize. He would be a strong short-term option in the top-six, be an excellent third-line scoring option when everybody is healthy, and would significantly upgrade the overall forward depth.
The problem is going to come from the potential contract.
Would he be willing to sign a short-term, one-year deal? Or would he want a multi-year deal? And in either case, could the Penguins get him at their price to fit under the salary cap?
If the answer to those questions are no, it’s difficult to see anybody else that is a realistic fit.
For example: Here are the top-10 remaining unrestricted free agents by points other than Tatar that remain unsigned: Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, Eric Staal, Nick Ritchie, Josh Bailey, Derick Brassard, Paul Stastny, and Danton Heinen.
Tatar had more goals and points than all of them with the exception of Kane.
And there is really no way that Kane is or should be an option. Not only does he seem to be completely cooked as a 5-on-5 player, he is also coming off major hip surgery and is not going to be ready to play until at least the mid-point of the season.
Kessel would be a fun story, but again, it’s just not really realistic given his age and declining play.
Then you have a list of veterans that are probably on the verge of retirement like Toews, Parise, Staal, and Stastny.
The Penguins already tried the Brassard experience and we saw how that turned out, and that was when he was five years younger.
Do you give Danton Heinen a third-crack at doing something?
After that, there really isn’t another potential top-six or even somewhat reliable top-nine forward that stands out.
They also have no real shot at any restricted free agents because they do not own their first-or third-round picks in 2024, which also seems to limit their potential trade options.
Honestly, Tatar looks like the perfect solution at the moment if they do add another forward and I would have liked him at any point in the offseason, let alone this late in the game.
He is a 20-goal, 50-point forward over 82 games and has some of the best underlying numbers in the league.
Of the 417 forwards that have logged at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time over the past three seasons Tatar has the following ranks.
Shot attempt share: 26th
Expected goal share: 16th
Scoring chance share: 15th
High-danger scoring chance share: 6th
Shot attempts against per 60 minutes: 38th
Expected Goals against per 60 minutes: 28th
Scoring chances against per 60 minutes: 42nd
High-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes: 19th
(All data via Natural Stat Trick)
That’s top-line play-driving, and when combined with his production he is still a heck of a player. Even if he played in a third-line role on a fully healthy Penguins team he would bring a dimension that none of their current bottom-six options have. The Penguins’ focus on the bottom-six this offseason has pretty clearly been on goal prevention. Pretty much every addition to that group has had an emphasis on defense, from Noel Acciari, to Lars Eller to Matt Nieto.
Even though he is not generally regarded as a defense-first forward, Tatar would not hurt that emphasis on defense while also adding more offense than any of the other new forward additions.
If there is a reasonable path to adding him in terms of a contract, the Penguins should make it happen. It would make an already strong offseason even stronger.