by Mike G. Morreale || NHL.com
Tomas Tatar was quite the world traveler last season — and in the end, he was one exhausted blue-chip prospect.
A 2009 second-round draft pick (No. 60) of the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar played 70 games in three countries during the 2009-10 season.
He endured his first season in North America, totaling 32 points in 58 games with Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. He had five points in six games for Slovakia at the 2010 World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, Sask., and represented his country again in the World Championships in Germany, where he scored two goals in six games.
"It was nice to play against NHL stars and I was happy the coach gave me a chance, but I was tired — it was so tough for me," Tatar told NHL.com.
Tatar was the youngest player, and at 5-foot-11 certainly one of the shortest, in the American Hockey League last season. But he had 21 points in his first 27 games before departing for the WJC, where he was second on the team with three goals.
"Last year it was my first year here and it was new for me," Tatar said. "I didn’t speak really good English, so this year I worked hard over the summer (adding 10 pounds), so hopefully I show something new."
Tatar certainly appears to be comfortable strutting his stuff in the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament this week, leading the Wings with three goals, four points, eight shots and a plus-2 rating through three games. Last year, he finished with three goals, five points and a plus-5 rating in the five-day tournament.
The Red Wings will face the Minnesota Wild’s prospects in the tournament final at 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Center Ice Arena.
"The thing is, I want to stay here in North America. I don’t care if it’s in the AHL or NHL, I just want to stay," Tatar said. "I was happy to make the team (in Grand Rapids), but the season was so tough. Hopefully I’m better prepared for this season because last year was such a long season. I played a lot, in World Juniors and World Championships."
Wings prospects coach Curt Fraser has used Tatar in just about every situation in Traverse City.
"He was the youngest player in the AHL last year and is so strong down low around the net that if you give this kid a chance, he’ll make things happen," Fraser said. "Tommy continues to get better and better. He’s a fantastic player on the ice, but even a better person off it. For a guy who couldn’t speak a word of English last summer, he’s the biggest joker in the room now."
Tatar, who was compared to playmaking forward Jiri Hudler by Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, feels he’s better prepared for the AHL this season.
"The toughest thing in the AHL was that I wasn’t strong like the guys," Tatar said. "They were like adults and I was still like a kid. But I worked over the summer and am more prepared for battling in the corners."
Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill feels there’s no need to rush Tatar at this stage of his career.
"He came into the rookie tournament (last year) as one of our better players and thought he was ready to play in the AHL, but we were a little hesitant about it," Nill said. "We said, ‘Go ahead and go down, and we’ll watch you.’ He could have played in Plymouth in the OHL last year. But we kept a close eye on him and he never missed a beat. He wasn’t getting bounced around. You always worry that the young kids won’t be able to hack it physically, but he had no trouble playing against men. We’re very excited about him because we feel he’s one of those players who brings a high end to him. We’re hoping to see continued growth in his game."
With so much flair and potential, it’s no wonder some other team would have snapped up Tatar prior to the final pick of the second round in 2009. After all, at the 2009 WJC in Ottawa, he had for seven goals and 11 points in seven games for Slovakia, including a pair in a 5-3 upset of Team USA in the quarterfinals.
"My guess is, he was there for us in the second round because he was small," said Hakan Andersson, Detroit’s director of European scouting. "I think everyone agrees he’s a good hockey player, but he still is not very big. He looks good, though."
Tatar scoffs at the notion he’s too small (5-foot-11, 176 pounds) to play the game.
"I think the one basic thing you can do, no matter your size, is score," he said. "I’m small, but in the NHL, small players like me have to work hard. You have to put some weight on your body, and I’m doing that. It’s not bad to be small. I have different dangles and I know how to score, but the basic thing is working hard and preparing — two things I’ll continue to do."