It is weird to think about what this list would look like if it was made starting last season. Had I done that, there is a good chance that players like Zach Boychuk would be in the Top 10 while Jiri Tlusty would be towards the bottom of the list. It's a year later now and while Boychuk has still yet to make his mark in the NHL, Tlusty did just that last season with a 17-goal, 36-point breakout campaign. Tlusty was primarily a fourth liner and AHL tweener before last season, so the expectations for him are usually pretty low, but one thing that's often forgotten about him is that he is still pretty young and has been slowly improving over the last few years.
It may seem like Tlusty is older because he's been in the league for awhile but he only turned 24 in March and seems to have finally solidified himself as an NHL-er now. Unfortunately, he will likely be seen as a "draft bust" by the larger media because of his draft slot and the Leafs possibly rushing him into the NHL before he was ready. Jim Rutherford decided to take a chance on Tlusty by trading Philippe Paradis to the Leafs for him and things seemed to have turned out well now. Tlusty had to work his way through the system and earn his ice-time with the Hurricanes but he appears to have earned a permanent spot on the team now and was a big part of the Canes first line last year.
A big part of Tlusty's breakout season was that the was able to show great chemistry with Eric Staal and the duo were very effective despite playing with a revolving door on the other wing. Tlusty and Staal were able to win the scoring chance battle at even strength when they were playing together, but things get a little interesting if you look at Tlusty's WOWY chart in the linked article. You can see that Tlusty had trouble controlling scoring chances when he was playing away from Staal and that could make you wonder how he will do in the future when he is playing with different linemates. Although, a reason for his poor underlying numbers is that he was playing on Brandon Sutter's line for most of the first half of the season, which is the line that gets the biggest defensive responsibilities on the team. Tlusty's defensive game may have developed nicely but he clearly wasn't ready for that role.
Tlusty has shown in his days in the AHL that he has a lot of offensive talent and has top-six potential but it's unknown if he can carry a line on his own. His underlying numbers at even strength have never been very good but he showed last year that he is at least able to get the job done with good linemates and his goal total wasn't driven by high percentages like some may think. The issue is that his performance next year is going to depend on what kind of ice-time he gets and what situation he will be playing in, neither of which can be determined right now. He might stay in the top-six if he looks good enough in camp but he could end up on a completely different line with a weaker center. What happens then? We'll have to wait and see.
Again, Tlusty is still very young and played about 42% of his career ice-time in last season alone so there is a lot about him that is unproven at this point. He had a great year but I would like to see some sustained production from him before anyone starts claiming him as a legit top-six forward. Hopefully he will get the chance to do that next year but if not, then I see no reason why he can't be a useful third liner. His scoring rate last year (1.68 at even strength) would be very good for a third liner, so if he can produce at a similar rate next year then the Hurricanes should be able to get their money's worth with Tlusty. He's only going to be paid $1.6 mil. over the next two years, so getting anything more than third line production out of him would be a terrific bargain under the current salary cap.
The main thing with Tlusty is that for every reason there is to be excited about his future, there is every bit of reason to be skeptical. There is no denying that he has talent and has worked hard to earn his place on the Hurricanes, but his underlying numbers are very spotty and he's had only one good season so far. Carolina made a great decision to keep him around at a low cost for two years, because it's enough time to evaluate him and he can still give the team great value if he continues to play to his potential.