How big of a risk is the Tlusty contract?

Yesterday, Hurricanes beat writer Chip Alexander tweeted that GM Jim Rutherford re-signed 24-year old forward Jiri Tlusty to a two year contract extension which will have a cap hit of $1.6 mil. each year. Tlusty is coming off a breakout season where he set career high marks in both goals and points (17 and 36 respectively) and became a regular on the first line with Eric Staal. He was about to become a restricted free agent and was a huge bargain for the $525k he was making this season, so he absolutely deserved an extension and a raise but there are some questions looming about him.

Whenever a GM signs a player to any contract, he is taking a risk by investing years and dollars in that player. Is Tlusty worth that kind of risk to the Hurricanes. My first thought is yes because Tlusty is coming off a great season and a two-year deal with less than $2 mil. per isn’t exactly a huge investment, especially for a team like Carolina who doesn’t spend to the cap.

However, I can’t help but be reminded of the Edmonton Oilers getting themselves into a huge mess by signing a number of young players to multi-year deals after they had one good season, most specifically Gilbert Brule and Robert Nilsson. Brule in particular has some similarities to Tlusty. Both entered the league at a young age and clearly weren’t ready for the NHL at the time. As a result, they couldn’t make much of an impact with the clubs who drafted them and ended up having breakout seasons with their new team’s shortly after.

Brule had 17 goals and 37 points in his second season with the Oilers which led to him getting a two-year extension worth about $1.9 mil. per year. That decision ended up burning the Oilers as he struggled with injuries the next year and wasn’t very effective when he was healthy either. The Oilers attempted to trade him, but his concussion issues prevented that and Brule was eventually put on waivers and claimed by the Phoenix Coyotes. The point behind this is that the risk the Oilers took on Brule didn’t appear to be terrible at first, but it ended up looking like a horrible decision the year later. Can the same thing happen with Tlusty?

Tlusty and Brule are completely different players, but their underlying numbers from their breakout seasons (2009 for Brule & 2011 for Tlusty respectively) are a tad similar. They didn’t have spectacular possession numbers, started a slight majority of their shifts in the defensive zone and faced similar opponents in terms of quality of competition. The most glaring similarity though comes in the first Copper & Blue article I linked two paragraphs earlier and that’s the effect of good linemates. Much of Brule’s success in his breakout year was attributed to playing with Dustin Penner during his career season. Likewise, Tlusty’s success can possibly be attributed to Eric Staal.

I examined this a couple months ago and determined that Tlusty is a lot more effective when he is playing with Staal. Just about all of Tlusty’s underlying numbers went up when he was playing on Staal’s line and they took a nose-dive when he wasn‘t. Another telling stat is that Staal was on ice for 30 of the even strength goals Tlusty scored, which is 71.4% of the 42 he was on-ice for all season. You have to wonder what happens when he isn’t playing with Staal.

That being said,Tlusty and Brule have their differences. Brule has a very sketchy injury history and Tlusty’s isn’t nearly as bad. Tlusty has also been a lot more successful at the AHL level as he was almost a point-per-game player with the Toronto Marlies. He was still in his early 20’s during those years, too. It’s also possible that he might stay in a top-six role next season and if he can continue to develop chemistry with Staal, then the Hurricanes have themselves a good player locked up for two more years. Tlusty was also somewhat effective in a bottom-six role in 2010-11 in Carolina and proved to be useful even if he wasn’t scoring. 

Just about every player has “red flags” that people will point to when it comes time for contract negotiations and Tlusty is no different. The Hurricanes are taking a risk with Tlusty but in today’s cap world, a $1.6 mil. cap hit isn’t going to severely damage a team beyond repair. If Tlusty can improve on this season or even have something similar to it, then this is a great deal. If not, then the Canes can easily work their way around it. What we don’t know is whether or not they will get the Tlusty of this most recent season.