While last season was mostly a forgettable year for the Hurricanes, it was definitely one to remember for Jiri Tlusty. The young forward had a career season with 17 goals and 36 points and seemed to develop a lot of chemistry on the first line with Eric Staal. This breakout campaign earned Tlusty a two-year contract extension and it’s hard to say that he didn’t deserve it. He has worked his tail off the last three years, fought for ice time and took advantage of his shot in the top-six when the time came.
Tlusty has certainly earned a permanent spot on the team but after the additions the team made this off-season, it’s hard to find a place for him in the top-six. Unless the two Staals and Jokinen all play center next season, Tlusty is likely going to find himself outside of the top-six next year and while this may not seem like a big deal at first glance, it will certainly change the expectations for him. Tlusty isn’t a stranger to playing on the third line since that’s where he played for most of the first half of last season. He also has plenty of experience being used in a defensive role as a fourth liner, so he can fill in there if needed and should be a contributor no matter what.
The question is where will he play and how much will he contribute. Something that you may remember me posting in Tlusty’s season recap was that he was very dependent on Eric Staal when it came to controlling scoring chances. Barring an injury, Tlusty won’t get to see that much ice-time with Staal next year, so what kind of production can we expect from him? To do that, we are going to take a closer look at Tlusty’s career numbers, what factored into his career season and what kind of situation he could be playing in next season.
Something that most hockey fans should know is that a player is likely going to see his numbers improve if he sees time with a top-tier center like Eric Staal, and that was certainly the case with Tlusty last year. Tlusty was on Staal’s wing for over half of his even strength minutes and 30 of the 43 even strength goals Tlusty was on ice for also came when he was playing with Staal. These two were also very good at controlling scoring chances when they were playing together, especially when you compare them to some of the team’s other lines.
So what happens when the two are split up? For Staal, there shouldn’t be much to worry about because he was able to do well with other linemates. Tlusty was a different story. He struggled to control scoring chances away from Staal and seemed to get pinned into his own zone a lot when he was used on other lines. Part of this was due to not playing with Staal but another reason is because when Tlusty wasn’t playing with Staal, he was being used on the third line with Brandon Sutter, aka the team’s "shutdown line." Tlusty was being trusted with massive defensive responsibilities then, so it’s easy to see why his underlying numbers look unfavorable.
Looking forward to next season, Tlusty could easily find himself on the third line to start the year, but he might also be used in a different situation. With Sutter gone and Jordan Staal now in the mix, the Hurricanes may roll their lines completely different from how they did last year and the third line might be used in some more offensive situations, especially if someone like Jeremy Welsh or Zac Dalpe is centering that unit. This could put Tlusty in a similar role to the first line, but with a weaker center. That is obviously going to have an effect on what the Canes get from Tlusty next season but it’s not like he is completely helpless without Staal.
Tlusty was a very good offensive player during his time with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL and he was a point-per-game player there in 2008-09. Staal definitely played a role in Tlusty’s breakout season but he has shown that he has talent and is capable of succeeding on his own. Just how much production can we expect from him, though?
Well, last season he had 17 goals, 36 points and scored 1.65 points per 60 minutes at even strength, which is considered to be just below a top-six rate, so we might expect him to have lower counting numbers if he plays fewer minutes but his scoring rate could stay the same. It’s difficult to project how many minutes the Hurricanes third line will get because there are so many new players but Patrick Dwyer and Brandon Sutter played roughly 13 minutes a game at even strength last year, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets 11-13 minutes as a third liner. Tlusty also saw his shot rate at even strength jump from 5.4 to 6.3 shots per 60 minutes, which may have been the result of playing with a better center or getting more minutes in general.
So let’s estimate that Tlusty plays roughly 12 minutes a game at even strength, records about 6 shots per 60 minutes and shoots at around his career rate of 12% at even strength. That would give him about 12-13 goals, give or take a couple more depending on what his shooting percentage looks like. His point total is a little more difficult to predict because that is going to depend on his linemates and we don’t know who he will be playing with. Jeremy Welsh has played only one NHL game and his ability to drive possession at even strength is largely unknown, and the same goes for Zac Dalpe who has played 31 total games. If he does stay on the third line, he could play a lot of minutes with Chad LaRose, who always generates a lot of shots but doesn’t score much so that could lead to some interesting things for Tlusty. He could end up getting fewer assists due to playing with a linemate with poor finishing ability or having more assists because he will be playing on a line with someone who shoots the puck a lot. It could go either way.
With this in mind, along with the fact that Tlusty is rarely used on the powerplay, we can say that Tlusty is a good bet to have something around 12-15 goals next season and his point total could reasonably finish around the 30-35 range. Of course, this is subject to change because shooting percentages bounce around over the course of a season and Tlusty may end up getting completely different minutes from what we are projecting here. If he stays on the third line then this projection should be around what the Hurricanes get from Tlusty, which is very reasonable for a third liner with some offensive upside.