Let's go back to the summer of 2011 and imagine yourself projecting the Hurricanes roster. The team had a huge hole to fill on the first line with Erik Cole leaving via free agency and the only players brought in to replace him with Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart and a couple of rookies with some upside. During this time, I thought it presented a great opportunity for one of the team's younger players to step into a scoring role and this is exactly what happened as Jiri Tlusty eventually found a permanent home on the first line. Tlusty's emergence as a scorer came out of nowhere to some people because he was utilzed as a defensive forward for most of his first two seasons with Carolina. He always had a lot of skill, though and fans finally got to see more of it last year when he was bumped up to a line with Eric Staal and had a respectable 17 goal, 38-point campaign over 79 games.
Being only 24 when the season started and poised with a lot of talent, there were a lot of reasons to be excited about Tlusty's future but many were curious about what his ceiling was. Is what we saw from Tlusty last year the best he can be in the NHL or is there the potential for him to do more? Is he nothing more than a third liner on a team with better forward depth or is he a true top-sixer? I thought Tlusty was good enough to be a top-six forward, but my concern with Tlusty was whether or not he could succeed when playing away from Eric Staal. When you look at the territorial performance of these two compared with Tlusty's performance on other lines, it's not too far-fetched to say that Staal made Tlusty look better than he really was last year.
How Tlusty can perform away from Staal is something we didn't have to find out this season but one thing that Tlusty made perfectly clear this year is that what we saw from him last year wasn't even close to his full potential. Tlusty showed everyone that he is a true top-six forward by scoring 23 goals, leading the Hurricanes and ranking fifth in the entire NHL. He also led the NHL by having 9 multi-goal games including four in the month of April alone, making him well worth his $1.6 mil. cap hit and then some.
His linemates definitely played a big role in this, as Tlusty had a front-row seat on the first line with Staal and newcomer Alexander Semin, but he actually proved to be a very good fit as the "finisher" on this unit. Tlusty is probably the least-skilled player on the first line, but he is a talented goal-scorer and one thing he seemed to be consistently good at was finding the soft spot in the defense and being in a perfect position to score on almost a regular basis. This isn't that hard to do when you have linemates like Staal & Semin who can create space, but you can not fault Tlusty for playing his role well by being the Hurricanes go-to goal-scorer.
Tlusty's always had a lot of talent and he's gotten better with every season, but I don't think any fan predicted him scoring 20+ goals in a half-season, seeing how this would be pro-rated to 39-40 goals in a full year. He did post some fantastic numbers while playing in the Czech League during the lockout, so there may have been some thinking he could carry that over to the NHL. I'm not sure how many predicted him to lead the Hurricanes in goals with the likes of Eric Staal, Alex Semin and Jeff Skinner on the team, though. It's a season that came out of nowhere and Tlusty may have even surprised himself with how good he was.
Much like Staal, Tlusty saw a lot of things go his way in this past year and it's unlikely that he will reach this plateau again, but that doesn't mean he will become worthless after this year. Tlusty still does a lot of things well and will likely stay on the first line, but the expectations for him should be leveled when you take a closer look at how this season went for him, especially since he is entering a contract year.
Tlusty was a first liner, but he wasn't used as much at even strength as a lot of the team's top players. It's probably because the Hurricanes double shifted players on more than a few nights and guys like Skinner, Semin and the Staal were usually the options for Muller rather than Tlusty. It's a little interesting that Tlusty was limited here because he was the team's top goal-scorer but Muller was reluctant to give him big minutes, at least at even strength. He was still a regular on the power play and was used on the second penalty kill unit on a lot of nights.
Tlusty was also used in secondary tough minutes on the first line with Eric Staal and given a healthy zone start push at even strength on top of that. It shows that while Tlusty was used in favorable situations, he wasn't playing cupcake minutes since the first line wasn't sheltered from the opponent's best defensive players.
5v5 Fenwick Diff/20
5v5 Chance Diff/20
Goal-based stats are the only categories that Tlusty ranked highly in and these are the direct result of percentages rather than Tlusty's on-ice performance. Goals are what ultimately wins and loses games so this isn't a bad thing, but you have to look at both the process and the result when it comes to scoring and preventing goals.
Take Tlusty's individual scoring chance rate for instance. His Chance/60 rate of 5.48 wasn't much higher than the likes of Chad LaRose or Drayson Bowman and it was considerably lower than Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner's. Tlusty ended up with more goals than all of them because he converted on over 20% of his scoring chances and found the back of the net on 19.6% of the shots he took. Tlusty was also on the ice for more opposing shot attempts and scoring chances than almost any other Carolina forward, but he ended up with a low GA/60 rate because Carolina's goaltenders stopped 93% of the shots they faced with him on the ice. When I said that Tlusty had a lot of things go his way this season, this is what I meant.
Aside from being on the ice for a lot of Carolina's scoring chances, Tlusty's actual on-ice performance wasn't very impressive, but his results were a lot better than anyone else and thus, he had a fantastic season going by counting stats. This isn't discrediting the year Tlusty had because his results were better than almost anyone on the team but it does make you wonder how much luck had to do with his high goal total and if he'll ever have this kind of season again.
The numbers make it pretty obvious that luck played a major role in Tlusty's season but going from my observations, he and his linemates helped create his own luck. Some players are known to be better finishers than others and while I don't think Tlusty will continue to score on 20% of the shots he takes, he really has a knack for exploiting holes in the defense created by his linemates and finishing off plays. I don't know how repeatable that is, but I don't think it's completely fair to say that his season was all smoke & mirrors. That being said, Tlusty will probably experience some regression next season and I think the Hurricanes are better off waiting until next summer to re-sign him.
This might surprise some people, but only one player led more zone entries than Tlusty and he actually carried the puck in quite a bit. Alexander Semin is expected to do most of the puck-handling on this line, but Tlusty was actually responsible for most of their zone entries and he did a fairly good job at gaining the line with control. I think there is room for improvement since the rest of the first line blows him out of the water in this category, but Tlusty was a much better neutral zone player than some give him credit for. I'd like to see him carry the puck in more often, though since he typically leads a lot of zone entries and this is what plays the biggest factor in how much offense a team creates at even strength.
Season Grade: A
Even though much of Tlusty's success can be attributed to good luck, goals are still what plays the biggest role in winning games and Tlusty excelled in that area this year, so he gets an A from me. Tlusty's poor underlying numbers are more of a concern for future seasons and whether or not he'll be able to produce at this level again. As far as next year goes, it's possible because he is going to have good linemates again and has shown the ability to exploit holes in the defense, but I would still expect him to take a step back because there are very few players who can sustain such a high shooting percentage.
The Final Word
Based on Tlusty's shooting percentage and scoring chance numbers, I think this year was a bit of an aberration for him and he'll take a step back next season. What is a step back, though? Does this mean he'll go back to being a 35-40 point player or can he still produce at a first line rate? This is something I'm not sure of because Tlusty doesn't have that long of a track record in the NHL and his results have been all over the place. Tlusty is going to be given every opportunity to succeed next year with the Hurricanes first line remaining in-tact and his role not changing much. What kind of results the Canes will get from him remains to be seen and it's a good thing that they have another year before it comes time to renew his contract because it gives them time to see if this season was a fluke or not.
Stats courtesy of Behind the Net & Hockey Analysis