TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Tomas Tatar has come a long way in a short period of time.
Originally chosen in the second round of the 2009 draft, Tatar has gone from being the youngest player in the American Hockey League, playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins at the age of 19 to becoming the scoring leader for the Detroit Red Wings at the age of 24.
"He really has established himself as a really, really good hockey player in the National Hockey League," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said after the first day of training camp. "Not many guys scored more goals than he did last year. I think he was 29 (goals), there were only a handful at 30-plus, so he’s really established himself."
Tatar led the Wings with 29 goals in 82 games.
Pavel Datsyuk was second with 26 goals in 63 games. Gustav Nyquist was third with 27 goals in 82 games.
Now it's time for Tatar to take his game to an even higher level.
"I think the next step for Tats is to make sure that he establishes himself as a go-to guy, one of the go-to guys on the team," Blashill said. "I think the last couple of years it’s been Pav and Z (Henrik Zetterberg), and if they’ve been out with any kind of injury or what not, we need to make sure that that next group of guys are ready to jump into those same roles and be go-to guys. That’s what I talked to Nyquist and Tats about. They’ve been really good players in the NHL since they’ve been up here. Now they’ve proven that they were go-to guys in the American League, not that they haven’t been go-to guys at times here, but now lets make sure that we can run a line by ourselves instead of being a piece of it."
Certainly Blashill knows what Tatar is capable of, having coached him in Grand Rapids.
Tatar was the leading scorer for the Griffins during the 2012-13 season when they won the Calder Cup.
Tatar scored 16 goals and five assists in 24 games, earning the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for the most valuable player.
One way Blashill could help Tatar reach that higher level is by putting him with a veteran center in Brad Richards.
Early in camp, Blashill had Richards with Tatar and Darren Helm before Helm went out with a concussion after a collision with Jerome Verrier.
"First I think Richards has been a really elite player in this league for a long time," Blashill said. "I think Tats is a real offensive, give-and-go type player. Helmer I think can give a little bit of speed, tenacity, go to the net, a complement to that line."
Tatar said he would welcome the opportunity to play with Richards.
"He’s an experienced guy," Tatar said. "He won a Cup last year. He’s been in the NHL many seasons. I’m really happy to have a chance to play with him and hopefully the chemistry will get going and we’ll see it (Saturday) in our first game."
Tatar said he tried some new training methods with his strength coach in the offseason.
"I think I can improve in any part, you can be better, faster," Tatar said. "You’re working always to become a better player every year, become stronger and harder, so that’s the expectations, to do better than last year and work for the team."
Now that Tatar has two full NHL seasons under his belt, he hopes that experience can help him become the go-to player that Blashill believes he can be.
"Some of the parts of the season last year where I struggled, I know how I felt, just transfer to this game so I know how hard I felt at that time, so know if it happens, hopefully I know how to react and try to put it behind me and focus on next game," Tatar said. "It’s just experience. That’s why those guys like Hank (Zetterberg) and Pav are so good, they’ve been in the league for so long, they do it every day right. So it’s my goal to try to watch those guys and try to do it every day right."
Zetterberg has confidence that Tatar will keep improving the way he has since his first stint in the NHL, nine games during the 2010-11 season.
"He's been taking a step every year here," Zetterberg said. "He will do it this year again. He scored a lot of goals for us last year, he will do the same this year. He looks good, he's in great shape so he's done everything right."