TRAVERSE CITY – The Red Wings went to Plan B on the first day of training camp at Centre ICE Arena Friday morning.
Tomas Tatar ascended to the top line on the first day of camp, replacing prospect Anthony Mantha, who was part of Plan A before he suffered a fractured right tibia earlier in the week.
Tatar skated on Pavel Datsyuk’s line, opposite of Darren Helm.
“It's nice, I played a little bit of (last) season with those guys,” Tatar said following Friday’s practice. “I played with Helmer actually kind of a lot when he was healthy so it's been fun for sure being on (the) top line and I'm really enjoying it.”
Originally, the Red Wings’ planned to have Mantha, their first-round draft pick from 2013, work on Datsyuk’s line. But injuries happen and flexibility is a vital commodity in coach Mike Babcock’s system.
Tatar produced 19 goals and 39 points last season, his first full NHL campaign, while spending most of his ice time on the third line with either Helm or Riley Sheahan.
While he enjoyed practicing on the first line, Tatar isn’t blind to the fact that line combinations during training camp – or during the regular season for that matter – are always subject to change.
“We’ll probably switch it a lot,” Tatar said of the four different lines. “Coach will try to find (out) who is playing with who. He will try to find some chemistry. But I would like to be on the line like this for sure when the season starts. You have to play good, you have to play two-way forward, do an offensive job but at the same time you have to play good in the defense, so there’s lots to do but I will try to battle for this spot.”
Last September, the Wings went to camp with the idea of pairing Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader with Datsyuk, while Stephen Weiss would center the second line between Johan Franzen and Daniel Alfredsson.
However, all three second-line players were injured at one time or another during camp and preseason, forcing Babcock to split up Zetterberg and Datsyuk.
Helm, whom Babcock once referred to as “the best third-line center in the league,” certainly welcomes the speed and agility that Tatar can bring to the top line which is already pretty dynamic when Datsyuk is healthy.
“When you’re around Tats you never have a hard time smiling or feeling good at the rink,” Helm said. “He’s a good teammate and it will be fun to play with him. He’s a skilled player and he’ll play hard.”
While Tatar has an infectious personality, the only way for him to keep his current spot on the top line is through hard work.
“He’s got a skill set, he gets open, he makes plays, he’s a good player,” Babcock said. “We have great depth in our organization, there’s no question, our team’s not going to fall off at all, but we could use some more top-six forwards. So you’re trying to find them and you’re trying to give opportunity but they have to earn them.”
Now is the time for Tatar to show his worthiness as a top-six forward.