Carolina Hurricanes Must Make Decision on Jiri Tlusty in 2014 NHL Offseason

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IMay 23, 2014

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 08: Jiri Tlusty #19 of the Carolina Hurricanes looks on against the New Jersey Devils during the game at the Prudential Center on March 8, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Andy Marlin/Getty Images

After years of line-jumping and niche-seeking, Jiri Tlusty will face his decision day with the Carolina Hurricanes this summer.

Tlusty's contract will expire in July; he's set to be a restricted free agent (RFA).

Eight seasons and 344 games into his NHL career, Tlusty's ideal role has never been conclusively established. His playing time and productivity have varied wildly since his arrival in Carolina in 2010, and not always in correlation.

Jiri Tlusty Box Score Stats
SeasonGPGA+/- Rating
2010-115766+1
2011-12491719+1
2012-13*482315+15
2013-14681614+2
per NHL.com stat database

Mark Jones / Freelance

Yet Tlusty, 26, has the ability to be an upper-tier forward.

He ranked sixth in the league in scoring in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, racking up 23 goals in 48 games thanks to a stunning (and fluky) 19.7 shooting percentage.

A plethora of injuries prevented such rhythm to be regained for much of 2013-14, but the spring brought renewed production to No. 19's stick. Tlusty finished with 12 goals and 22 points over his last 33 appearances, including six goals and 11 points over his last 12 appearances.

The innate opportunism that has always been Tlusty's most exceptional trait also serves as his greatest hindrance—when teammates slump, Tlusty is usually carried down along with them.

RALEIGH, NC - JANUARY 13: Jiri Tlusty #19 of the Carolina Hurricanes skates along the boards with the puck during their NHL game against the the Calgary Flames  PNC Arena on January 13, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via G
Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

The Hurricanes' now-fired coaching staff continually struggled to find his ideal spot on the depth chart. He produces best and usually serves well as a secondary option for top-line teammates, but his contributions on lower lines rarely seem to justify such a promotion.

In fact, Tlusty was largely considered a defensive winger up until the lockout. The percentage of shifts he began in the offensive zone jumped from 48.8 percent in 2011-12 to 58.5 percent in 2012-13 and 59.1 percent this past season, according to Extra Skater. Tlusty's shot-attempt differential (Corsi rating) also increased accordingly.

Consider the wide variance of Tlusty's shooting percentage rate over the last three seasons below:

Red line represents 20-game moving average. Black line represents 10-game moving average.
Red line represents 20-game moving average. Black line represents 10-game moving average.Graphic by Mark Jones. Statistics per NHL.com stat database.

From the heights of early 2012-13 to the steady struggles of early 2013-14, Tlusty's rises and falls are usually quite pronounced. He appears an unheralded top-six contributor when converting at a high rate, then an inconsequential fourth line when his rate craters a few months later.

NEWARK, NJ - JUNE 30:  Vice President of Hockey Operations Ron Francis of the Carolina Hurricanes attends the 2013 NHL Draft at Prudential Center on June 30, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

All of the above equates to an intriguing conundrum for Ron Francis and the rest of Carolina's overhauled management staff this summer.

The 'Canes face a looming and inevitable salary-cap squeeze this offseason (unless they decide to use their allotted compliance buyouts). The club has just six forwards remaining under contract, according to Capgeek, and (along with three UFA forwards) five RFA forwards—Tlusty, Andrei Loktionov, Drayson Bowman, Nathan Gerbe and Zach Boychukwith whom to negotiate.

Tlusty is concluding a two-year contract with a $1.6 million cap hit. Two summers ago, such a deal was a big raise for the Czech Republic native, who was coming off of two consecutive one-year contracts for $500,000 and $525,000.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

This time, however, his sights are likely set even higher.

Tlusty has recorded 104 points the last three years combined, per QuantHockey.com. Matt Cullen, 37, has tallied 101 and landed a three-year contract with a $3.5 million cap hit last summer; Mikhail Grabovski, 30, has registered 103 and signed a five-year deal with a $5.5 million cap hit last summer; Patrik Berglund, 25, has recorded 95 and received a one-year contract with a $3.25 million cap hit last summer.

Those are somewhat special examples, but the comparison is nonetheless eye-opening.

Last November, TSN's Darren Dreger reported that Tlusty was one of two players on then-general manager Jim Rutherford's trading block. Luke DeCock of the News & Observer then tweeted an interesting inference in reaction:

If DeCock's opinion was indeed correct at that time, it's possible that seven months and a GM change have subdued his urges. It's also possible that it hasn't.

RALEIGH, NC - APRIL 10: Jiri Tlusty #19 of the Carolina Hurricanes carries the puck during their NHL game against the Washington Capitals at PNC Arena on April 10, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

Can the 'Canes afford to double Tlusty's salary into the $3 or $4 million range?

Would doing so be a sensible idea in the first place?

Is Tlusty even highly interested in re-signing in Carolina?

No answer is too clear.

But a decision will have to be made regardless.

 

Mark Jones has been a Carolina Hurricanes Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report since 2009. Visit his profile to read more or follow him on Twitter.