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Red Wings' Tatar hopes to build off breakout season

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- On paper, it may look to some as though Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar took a while to reach the NHL.

He spent the better part of four seasons playing with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League before graduating full-time to the Red Wings in 2013-14.

The Red Wings, however, do not view it that way. They believe their leading goal-scorer from last season arrived on schedule and fully prepared to play in the NHL.

"His junior rights were owned by Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League and we had conversations about having him play with Tyler Seguin in Plymouth or playing in the AHL," general manager Ken Holland said. "He didn't know a lot about junior hockey and really wanted to play pro. We said come on over and we'll see how it goes. He stayed the entire year in the AHL and held his own."

Holland said Detroit scouts liked Tatar's play at the 2009 World Junior Championship; he scored seven goals and 11 points for fourth-place Slovakia, and the Red Wings selected him at No. 60 in the 2009 NHL Draft.

"He was a smallish player, but he played hard and with passion," Holland said.

Tatar continued to develop in the AHL and in his third season, after scoring 23 goals and 49 points in 61 regular-season games with Grand Rapids, he had 16 goals and 21 points in 24 playoff games to help the Griffins win the Calder Cup. Tatar was named winner of the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP.

"That was his coming of age," Holland said. "The team was counting on him to produce and he came through."

After scoring a respectable 19 goals and 39 points in 2013-14, Tatar led the Red Wings in goals with 29 last season and managed 56 points. Only Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk out-scored him with 66 and 65 points, respectively.

Tatar, 24, believes he can bring more to the table and with Zetterberg and Datsyuk in the twilights of their careers, he hopes one day to be even more of a go-to player.

"It all depends on how much playing time you get," Tatar said. "The first year I didn't get much time on the ice and same with the second year, but I built a trust with the coach and he put me out for certain moments. I still think we have certain leaders they turn to first and I am more than happy to watch how they do things. I am still learning from these players. I do want to have a bigger impact every year."

Tatar carefully considered when asked if he might one day replace Zetterberg and Datsyuk as the Red Wings' top producing forward.

"It is tough to say," he said. "Those guys to me are superstars. They have been in the League so long. I would love to one day be there, but so far I am happy those guys are still on the team so I can pick up more experience."

Holland said it is important to manage expectations of emerging players. Just because a player scores 29 goals one season, it does not mean he'll automatically improve to 39 or 40 the following year.

"Thirty goals is a lot of goals," Holland said. "If he can just continue to be a 30-goal scorer year after year after year, that's pretty hard to do in the NHL. When you go from 19 goals to 29, teams start paying a lot more attention to you. If you told me Tatar and Gustav Nyquist (27 goals last season) were going to score around 30 a year every year, I'd take that and run. It's hard to do."

Tatar is determined to continue his ascent as an individual, but it's the Red Wings' results that mostly consume him. They finished third in the Atlantic Division last season with 100 points and then lost their Eastern Conference First Round series in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tatar said he thinks the Red Wings are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

"Even though we lost last season in Game 7 to Tampa, I felt afterwards we were the better team," he said. "We could do some damage, but unfortunately we didn't win Game 7 and Tampa went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. It just shows how close we were even though we went out in the first round. I think we are still going in the right direction. We made the playoffs and we feel good about ourselves.

"Obviously we were disappointed we went out in the first round, but when you lose a Game 7 to a team that went to the Final, it is hard to be really mad."

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