Last year was a Tale of Two Tuchs for the Vegas Golden Knights. The regular season Tuch battled injuries, inconsistent linemates and a lack of production. The playoff Tuch led the team in a few different offensive categories and was one of the better players in the return to play. Which story plays out this season for the VGK?
The Vegas Golden Knights made another deep playoff run this season, bowing in the Western Conference Final to the Dallas Stars. Although there was inconsistency up and down the lineup, Tuch was among those who stepped up. He scored eight goals, three of them game winners. Both of those numbers were good enough to lead the Golden Knights in the playoffs. His 12 points doubled his career playoff output. Not bad for a guy who is just 24 and also had a stellar 20-goal, 52-point season in 2018-19.
But then, there was the 2019-20 regular season. Coming off those career best numbers Tuch struggled. Big time. Outside of a nice four-game point streak at the start of December with four goals and seven points, the Syracuse, NY native was absent from the score sheet more often than not. In fact, after scoring a goal in the last game of that streak on December 5, Tuch would only score three more times in the next 28 games. Then Tuch got hurt, and a short time later everything went on pause.
Tuch’s first two seasons with the Golden Knights showed promise and improvement. There was nothing out of the ordinary with the advanced stats. It merely looked like a very good prospect developing into a very good NHL player. Expectations were high for last season for last season but not unwarranted. If Tuch took that next step forward, perhaps he’d blossom into a 30-goal scorer (or better).
It’s possible to say that the pressure of his new contract kicking in weighed on him. Or that teams were paying more attention to him than before after scoring 20 goals. But I truly believe there was one major and one abetting factor holding him back.
The abetting factor would be the injury issues he had last season. Tuch only appeared in 42 games, picking up a “lower body injury” (I hate these terms) on February 13 that ended his season. For those who missed it, it was a cringeworthy crash into the boards late in the third period of that game. Oddly enough he tanlged with current teammate and then-Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo in the collision. Tuch tried to come back a short time later but suffered a setback. Then the league went on pause giving him time to heal for the return to play.
I don’t have any major concerns on Tuch’s health moving forward, which is a very good thing. I’m sure VGK fans are breathing easier after his playoff performance as well. In fact, the pause took the pressure off many athletes feel to return and help the team. Instead, Tuch was able to focus on getting healthy this time. He’s still young and no doubt felt some pressure to justify that new contract by trying to play at less than 100 percent.
But injuries are only part of the equation.
The major factor is Tuch’s ever-changing supporting cast of linemates. Before the Mark Stone trade, he looked at home in the top six forward group and as mentioned was putting up good numbers. After being knocked down to the third unit through no fault of his own, Tuch struggled to find the consistency that made him such a threat. It’s understandable that occasionally injuries and streaks of play displace linemates. But this is a different situation.
Even head coach Peter DeBoer recognized that fact, saying before the return to play that he felt Tuch not being in the top six hurt his production. Injuries up and down the lineup didn’t help with the consistency for linemates. DeBoer also noted that he didn’t feel Tuch’s game had changed much, but some of the difference was situational.
One thing that will go a long way towards settling down the lines is figuring out the centers. Whether Cody Glass or Chandler Stephenson wins that second line spot where Paul Stastny used to skate, establishing chemistry in a shortened season is paramount. Getting Tuch comfortable with a center who can help create time and space for him is important.
If Stephenson does end up on the third line, reuniting with Nicholas Roy reforms a line that saw success and chemistry in a small sample size last year. DeBoer seemed to like that line coming out of summer camp before the bubble. As if on cue, Stephenson had to step up between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone early in the return when injuries hit.
Truth be told, Stephenson didn’t look out of place, and that’s exciting news if his level of play continues on the second or third line. It also makes sense to put him on a third line to see what Glass has to offer. Plus if the third line has to take some defensive matchup weight they could, although DeBoer noted Tuch is a “mismatch guy” for the VGK. Simply put, DeBoer feels if he can get Tuch on the ice against weaker opposition he should be primed to produce for the Golden Knights.
With the depth of skill up front for Vegas, I truly believe the only factors holding back Alex Tuch this season are comfort and line familiarity. If he can establish himself and his linemates early in camp, there’s no reason to believe the Alex Tuch that earned a seven-year, $4.75M per year deal won’t look like a massive bargain in the long run.