Reasonable expectations: Jiri Tlusty

The other day, I wrote about the Hurricanes cap situation for next year and mentioned that they are going to have a tough decision to make regarding Jiri Tlusty. Assuming the salary cap stays where it is, the Canes aren't going to have a lot of wiggle room under the cap after extending Faulk, Tlusty and other RFA's, so they have to be careful with deciding how much money each of these players are worth. In that article, I said that they should pay Faulk whatever it takes to make him stay, as he is the most important RFA, but Tlusty's final price will be interesting to see. Some may look at only last year and say that Carolina should roll out the bank trucks for him because you do not let a 23-goal scorer walk away for nothing. That was only 48 games worth of data, though and committing long-term money because of an incredible performance over a small-sample size is just a bad idea. 

This is especially true in the case of Tlusty because the odds of him repeating this kind of season seem pretty low. Don't get me wrong, he, along with the rest of the Canes first line, had one of the most productive seasons in the NHL going by goals and points. Not only that, but it was one of the best seasons the league has seen in six years and a lot of it had to do with the three of them posting ridiculous on-ice shooting percentages at even strength. Couple that with their mediocre possession metrics, and it's fair this line regressing a bit next season. The question is how much will their production fall off?

Both Eric Staal and Alexander Semin have been able to raise the shooting percentage of their teammates in the past and neither of them had ridiculous seasons in terms of their own personal shooting percentages. Semin is actually coming off a down year where he had trouble finding the back of the net, so I would expect him to improve there. That leads us to Tlusty, who had a ridiculous season where he was on pace for about 39 goals and over 60 points. Getting to play with two elite play-makers in Staal & Semin had a lot to do with that, but he also heavily benefited from a 19.7% shooting percentage, which probably won't carry over to next season. 

There are some players who have been able to maintain high shooting percentages on a year-to-year basis, but it's a rare talent and Tlusty hasn't been in the league long enough for us to know if he fits into that category. Therefore, it's fair to expect some regression from him, but I think everyone knew that going into the season because players just don't go from being third liners to consistent 30+ goal scorers in the span of a year. What we should be more concerned with is whether or not Tlusty can still produce at a decent rate on the first line without converting on nearly 20% of his shots. 

Tlusty is only 25 years old and it's possible that he just took longer to peak offensively than other players, but what are some reasonable expectations for him next season? If he does cool off, will he still produce enough to stay on the first line or will someone take over for him? Taking a look at Tlusty's career numbers will help us answer these questions.

For starters, I'll say that I don't think last season was a complete fluke for Tlusty because he did a lot of things to create good situations for himself. He is one of the smartest players on the Hurricanes and always found his way to the scoring areas and was very effective at finishing off plays. Whether or not he can continue this next year is the issue because even though shot quality exists, there isn't much evidence to show that it's a repeatable skill. Getting to ride shot gun with Alex Semin & Eric Staal probably helped matters, as those two did most of the puck-handling & bullwork while Tlusty found the soft spot in the defense to create scoring chances.

With that being said, Tlusty also shot the puck a lot more than he did in previous seasons, which is always a good thing if you're looking to improve your goal total. Some might correlate that with him getting an increase in ice-time, but if you look at his shot rates per 60 minutes over his career, you'll notice that it took a pretty big spike last season.

Season GP G A PTS Shots TOI Shots/60 Sh%
2007-08 58 10 6 16 69 634 6.530 14.49%
2008-09 14 0 4 4 22 178 7.416 0.00%
2009-10 20 1 5 6 17 251 4.064 5.88%
2010-11 57 6 6 12 53 562 5.658 11.32%
2011-12 79 17 19 36 136 1178 6.927 12.50%
2012-13 48 23 15 38 117 876 8.014 19.66%
Career 296 58 60 118 431 3930 6.580 13.46%

The shooting percentage obviously sticks out here, but Tlusty was never this active offensively in his career and him getting the puck on net more often definitely played a role in his great season. Analysts will often preach that getting the puck on goal is "never a bad play" because it gives your team a chance to score and this is especially true for Tlusty considering the talent he was playing with. Defenses always had trouble picking up Tlusty because they usually converged on Semin or Staal (the two primary puck-carriers on this line) while giving him plenty of space to roam around, especially in the center of the ice.

One would think that defenses will be more aware of Tlusty next season and that will make it tougher for him to score then. However, if Tlusty can continue to get about 8 shots per 60 minutes while playing 14-15 minutes a game, he could continue to be a 20-goal guy if his shooting percentage regresses to his career average. Although, his career average isn't exactly a sure bet since Tlusty's barely played four NHL seasons. Some would argue that it is because of what I said earlier about Tlusty's ability to find gaps in the defense and finish plays off. A glance at Tlusty's shot chart from last year shows that he was very good at creating shots from dangerous locations, but how much better was he at doing this compared to the rest of the team?

Player Shots Scoring Chances SC%
Ruutu 30 20 66.7%
J. Staal 112 67 59.8%
E. Staal 149 89 59.7%
Nash 36 20 55.6%
Tlusty 113 60 53.1%
LaRose 64 32 50.0%
Westgarth 16 8 50.0%
Wallace 19 9 47.4%
Dwyer 92 43 46.7%
Jokinen 61 27 44.3%
Skinner 154 66 42.9%
Bowman 68 28 41.2%
Semin 148 60 40.5%
Brent 23 7 30.4%

Tlusty was one of the better forwards on the team at creating chances last season, but this chart poses more questions than it does answers. If being able to get to create dangerous shots resulted in goals for Tlusty, then why did it not have the same effect for Jordan Staal? Skinner & Semin created fewer scoring chances relative to how many times they shot the puck, but they each had just as many total chances as Tlusty, but didn't score as much. Why is that? Semin has been a strong finisher for most of his career and Skinner was the same in his first two NHL seasons, so I find it hard to believe that Tlusty had the magic touch on most of his scoring chances while the other two were just shooting blanks on their's.

In the end, this comes down to shooting percentages and how random they tend to be over the course of a season. Not many goals are scored in a full NHL season, so randomness can have an effect on the results and strange things tend to happen in some years. This is even more true in a 48-game schedule, so you'll end up with a lot of players having career seasons in terms of goals, points & save percentage. Tlusty was one of the players who benefited from this while others like Skinner & Jordan Staal got the shaft. Things should normalize next season, but what is "normal" for Tlusty?

In three years, Tlusty has gone from a grinder to a potential 30+ goal scorer and it's tough to figure out what his "true talent level" is. If he continues to play on the first line, he could continue to post high offensive numbers even if his shooting percentage comes down to Earth. What if he is bumped off that line, though? Will his offensive production completely fall off should that happen or will he be fine? It's easy to assume that Tlusty was carried by Staal & Semin last year because he is the least talented player of the trio but the numbers suggest otherwise.

  Goals/60 Assists/60 Pts/60 Corsi%
Tlusty w/ Staal 1.37 1.05 2.31 48.5%
Tlusty w/ Semin 1.39 1.04 2.32 49.5%
Tlusty w/o Staal 1.15 0.57 1.72 55.7%
Tlusty w/o Semin 1.14 0.76 1.90 50.3%

Stats taken from Hockey Analysis

Tlusty's play was definitely elevated by Staal & Semin, but he may have not been a passenger on that line because he didn't have much of an issue scoring away from them. He didn't record as many assists, but Tlusty's goal-scoring ability was not impacted much by his two linemates, at least at even strength. In fact, Tlusty didn't seem to have much of a problem with driving the play away from Staal or Semin, as the Hurricanes owned over 50% of the even strength shot attempts in those situations. It's interesting because, as a unit, the Hurricanes first line struggled in terms of possession last year but it doesn't look like Tlusty was part of the problem there. So, if you are looking for a "passenger" on the first line, it isn't him. 

The fact that Tlusty was able to score while playing away from the first line might come as a surprise to some, but he was able to do the same thing the year before.

  Goals Assist1 Assist2 Points
Tlusty w/ Staal 2011-12 8 5 9 22
Tlusty w/o Staal 2011-12 7 4 1 12

Tlusty's point total received a massage after being promoted to the first line with Eric Staal in 2011-12, but he scored only one fewer goal while not a member of that line, so it doesn't appear that he was completely reliant on Staal to be productive. This along with his solid possession numbers away from the first line speak some promising things about his future but it is still hard to ignore his 19.7% shooting percentage, which will surely come down in a full season. He could still be a productive player without the aid of this or great linemates, though and now it's just a matter of finding out whether he can stay good enough to consistently play on the first line or the top-six. I'm not sure if we'll know the answer by this time next year, but we will certainly have a better idea of it.

Right now, my guess is that he is closer to a 20-25 goal scorer than what we saw last year but that could change depending on how next season goes.

Stats courtesy of Hockey Reference, Behind the Net, Greg Sinclair's Super Shot Search App & Hockey Analysis