BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — Two things were major factors in Tomas Tatar's season last year: English and a 58-game schedule.
While one got better, the other got the better of him.
The Slovakian left winger worked on his language skills. He showed a drastic improvement from this time last year, when his broken English at the NHL Prospects Tournament was sometimes difficult to understand.
The 19-year-old's skills on the ice were prominently displayed early in the American Hockey League schedule, as he dazzled the Detroit Red Wings with 21 points in his first 27 games, despite being the youngest player in the entire AHL. However, he slowed down as the season wore on, notching just 11 points in his final 31 games for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
"I'm not surprised," Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill said. "He's a pretty young kid. It's just him maturing as a player and getting stronger. He's got the skills and he's hard-working. It's just an adjustment to the game over here."
The franchise's top prospect has done what the team expects in this week's tournament. Through two games, Tatar leads the Red Wings with two goals and three points.
"I think I'm a little better prepared for this season," Tatar said. "Last season, I didn't speak too much English. It was real tough for me, but the guys in the locker room were really helpful to me. Now I'm a little better and I've already played a season in the AHL. So I think this season will be better for me."
He's bulked up a bit, now carrying 188 pounds instead of the 179 he played at last season.
"Last year was so tough for me because I never played so many games like last year," Tatar said. "So I've worked hard and tried a little more to work on my weight. Now I'm five kilos up. That will be good for me."
Nill envisions the 2009 second-round pick as someone who can occupy a forward spot in a Red Wings jersey for many years to come.
"I project him to have top two line potential — a top six forward," Nill said. "He can score, is competitive and is strong on the puck. He's got a good chance of being a scorer at the next level. That's a big step from playing over there to playing here in the American league. And he handled it very well."
Tatar's game has often been compared to that of Jiri Hudler, who returns to the Red Wings this season after a year playing in Russia.
"He's a better skater than Jiri Hudler," Nill said. "Jiri might have a little better hockey sense, but he's a very skilled player for his age."
And despite only being 19 (he'll turn 20 in December), Tatar could be a player the Red Wings look to if they sustain some injuries to forwards during the season.
"I hope I can get up (to Detroit) for a couple games this season," Tatar said. "Maybe some players get injured. I never wish that kind of thing, but you never know."