Alex Tuch Quietly Enjoying Breakout Season in Vegas

Alex-Tuch-Quietly-Enjoying-Breakout-Season-in-Vegas

After defying the odds to reach the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion team last year, the Vegas Golden Knights were ultimately defeated by the Washington Capitals. Though getting that close to glory and falling short must have been a tough pill to swallow, it was nevertheless an incredible season that included quite a few silver linings.

One of the lesser-publicized yet significant developments was the emergence of winger Alex Tuch as a budding NHL star.

His 37-point rookie campaign was followed by another 10 points in 20 playoff contests. Those aren’t earth-shattering numbers by themselves, but he exhibited lofty upside along the way as a fleet-footed, 6’4”, 222-pound forward with soft hands. The fluidity and ease with which he could generate opportunities were jaw-dropping. Greater consistency was the key to attaining the next level.

Well, suffice to say he’s found it.

The 22-year-old has posted 26 points in 31 games and is regularly among the most dangerous players on the ice. His constant threat on the second line bolsters a forward core that was too reliant on the top unit of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in 2017-18.

Tuch missed the first eight games of the 2018-19 season with a lower-body injury. Vegas went 3-5-0 (62-point pace) over that span. Once he returned to solidify the second line, the Golden Knights got the ball rolling and have since put up a 17-10-4 record (100-point pace). The squad’s overall offense is entirely different with him in the lineup, and this manifests itself in both the optics and the cut-and-dry results.

His team wins much more frequently when he plays, and his 54.5% goal share ranks second behind enforcer extraordinaire Ryan Reaves.

With that said, the biggest beneficiary of Tuch’s breakout year is Max Pacioretty. Acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in September, the former Habs captain was mired in a slump early on (1 point in 8 games) and appeared content to ride games out as a passenger.

 

When Tuch returned and was placed next to Pacioretty, the line clicked right away. It now had a playmaker willing to push the action, earn the opposition’s respect and create holes in coverage. Pacioretty has produced 18 points in 22 games since Tuch returned, and his GF% jumps from a whopping 0.0 to 53.8 alongside the second-year stud. That sort of dependence isn’t ideal from a supposed star, but it also speaks to Tuch’s value to the club.

Despite his success, it should be noted that he isn’t really a puck-possession monster. On a team that controls 54.0% of the shot attempts (4th) and 55.2% of the scoring chances (2nd) at 5-on-5, he only sports a 50.5 CF% and 51.6 SCF%.

Vegas is a well-coached team that works collectively to hound the puck for 60 minutes. Because hockey involves so many moving parts, operating with that level of cohesion on a consistent basis is quite difficult. That’s precisely why last season’s run was so impressive. Everyone was dialed in from opening day through to the postseason.

Tuch offers an alternative to that dimension.

He may not demonstrate a relentless motor, but he can provide instant offense. His deceptive speed routinely catches opponents unprepared in the neutral zone. He’s also one of the few young forwards who grasps the full advantages of his frame, often holding the puck just out of range in order to assess the situation and make plays. Defenders think there’s a window to poke-check it, but he can extend his reach far enough to maintain the upper hand. Containing him is thus a tricky proposition: He can blow by you in space and shield the puck from you in congested areas.

He also exploits his reach around the crease, either outwaiting goaltenders in tight or beating them to the spot on wrap-arounds. In that sense, he’s somewhat reminiscent of Rick Nash in his Columbus Blue Jackets heyday — less physical, but effortless. His knack for manufacturing chances comes naturally.

On the power play, his big-body presence mitigates some of the over-passing tendencies from Marchessault and Smith. Seeing a shooting lane is one thing. Seeing a decent lane with Tuch creating havoc in front is much more enticing. As a result, Vegas’ forwards are more judicious with their attempts to pass through seams. If it’s there, capitalize on it. If it’s not, send the puck on net and let the strapping forward go to work.

Tuch boasts the highest points-per-game average (0.84) and the most even-strength points on the team (21)…and he missed eight contests to begin the year.

In his sophomore campaign, he simply looks more confident on the ice. He realizes how dangerous he can be on the rush and how can imposing he can be down low. He’s accepted his role as a true game-changer. Despite similar possession numbers to last season, that self-belief has yielded an even higher individual points percentage (from 68.4 to 79.2). There are no traces of timidity or deference in sight. He’s driving the offense on his line. That’s just it, really: It’s his line now.

Frankly, it’s hard to believe Minnesota gave up on the 2014 18th overall pick during the expansion-draft craziness (he was dealt to Vegas on the condition that the Knights selected Erik Haula). His tools are outstanding, and he’s put them all together very early in his career.

He’s only getting started too, as his potential trumps that of anyone currently on Vegas’ roster. He’s smart, skilled and smooth as silk.

With Pacioretty on injured reserve (lower-body injury), the forward units were a bit jumbled in the last two games. This resulted in ugly losses to Montreal and Los Angeles. He isn’t expected to be out long, though, so the Golden Knights should find their stride after a couple of setbacks and enjoy the depth that he, Paul Stastny and Tuch provide.

On a team whose all-hands-on-deck approach is more susceptible to puck luck (97.9 PDO, 29th) than others, head coach Gerard Gallant’s ability to throw Tuch out there offers a potent counterpoint.

The kid can make you pay in the blink of an eye.

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