RALEIGH, N.C. -- Carolina Hurricanes forward Jiri Tlusty has spent his six-year professional career split nearly evenly between Toronto and his current team. Given that the beginning of his NHL career was a constant shuttle between the Maple Leafs and the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies, those early years are now disappearing from his view.
"I spent [parts of four] years there, and I'm such a different player," Tlusty said. "I've learned so many things from the roles that I've been playing over here."
The 13th pick in the 2006 NHL Draft, Tlusty always knew expectations were high. Equally adept at setting up a scoring chance and finishing one, he also was willing to do hard work deep in the offensive zone.
There were flashes of that form in the Toronto organization. He posted 66 points in 66 games with the Marlies in 2008-09. During a call-up that season, he had a three-assist game against the Hurricanes on Jan. 15. But it wasn't enough to hold the attention of the parent club, who subsequently traded him to Carolina the following season. Since then, Tlusty has learned how to be an everyday NHL player.
"You have to earn every single chance out there," he said. "You go out there as a fourth-liner, so you have to make sure you don't give up any chances, and that leads to ice time every night. That was the big key. I learned from that. Now I can say I'm a good two-way player."
Two-way play is just the start. He has spent the season playing on Carolina's top line with Eric Staal and Alex Semin. With 13 goals and 22 points, no one is questioning Tlusty's ability to play a critical role on a scoring line. Most importantly, Staal has flourished with Tlusty as a linemate.
Last season, Staal skated with 11 different wings, Tlusty among them. So did he see anything special from Tlusty during the open auditions?
"I did," Staal said without hesitation. "I played with a lot of wingers last year, and when Jiri came up with me you could get that feeling right away that in the right situation he could contribute offensively and do a great job defensively."
With 17 goals a season ago, Tlusty earned more consideration for top-line minutes when this season began. He helped his cause by proving he could play on an elite scoring line during the lockout, skating alongside Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Plekanec for Kladno in the Czech Republic. By the second game of Carolina's season, he was paired with Staal and Semin.
"Their chemistry is good," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "Tlusty is kind of the safeguard of the line, but he is also scoring and producing at the rate of a guy on the first line."
Both Staal and Semin have spent much of their time hounding the puck and looking to make plays this season. That has put some burden on Tlusty to prove he's a finisher. So far, he seems a natural in that role.
"With Eric wanting to play a straightforward power game, Alex slows it down and creates plays with the group," Muller said. "Because of their size, they’re able to hold onto the puck in the offensive zone, hold off the D. That gives them an opportunity to work as a unit of three."
Tlusty may not have been the most likely candidate to emerge as a breakthrough scorer. But he has slowly taken over that role and is ready to meet the considerable expectations that have followed him since the day he was drafted by Toronto.
"He's obviously been able to capitalize with a lot of goals. I could see that coming," Staal said. "He scored a lot of goals last year, but this year he's doing it at a better clip."
Making a believer of Staal is one more reason that Tlusty's lean, early years are in the distant past.
"The biggest change is getting the chance and having the trust of the people here," Tlusty said. "The more time you play, you trust yourself more. It's a good feeling, knowing you are helping the team win."