Everything in between – the 24 games played in the Czech elite league with a childhood idol; the 48 games played with Carolina in which he scored at a blistering pace and cemented his role as a top-six forward; and the eight games played with the Czech national team in the World Championship – made for a career season.
The conclusion of the Hurricanes shortened season was especially bittersweet for the sixth-year forward. In just 48 games, Tlusty established career highs in goals (23) and points (38), but the team failed to qualify for the postseason for the fourth straight year.
“It’s hard to see everyone packing up their stuff and leaving, but it was definitely a good year for myself,” Tlusty said in an exit interview. “We’ve got a good core and a big future.”
Tlusty, 25, figures to be a key part of that future. If 2011-12 was a breakout year for the former 13th overall draft pick, this season was an affirmation of his offensive talents. Tlusty’s 23 goals ranked first on the team and fifth in the NHL, marking only the second time since 1997 that a Hurricanes player has finished in the top five in the league in goals.
Tlusty led the Canes with nine multi-goal games, and he earned his first-career hat trick on April 2 against Washington. He ranked second on the team with three game-winning goals and paced the team and the league with four empty-net goals. The Slany, Czech Republic, native finished the season riding an eight-game point streak (6g, 5a), and had it been a full 82-game season, he was on pace to score 39 goals and 64 points.
Asked if Tlusty could sustain that scoring clip, head coach Kirk Muller offered an assertive response.
“I do,” he said. “Even if the scoring isn’t there, his main role on the line was to be the safety valve and to play well two ways to give Eric (Staal) and Alex (Semin) the opportunity to play offensively. Jiri really maximized that opportunity and went out and produced offensively at a real solid rate.”
The Canes’ dominant first line of Tlusty, Staal and Semin combined for 135 points (54g, 81a) in 48 games and was a collective plus-34.
“Everyone was working, and that’s what was the key for the line,” Tlusty said. “We had some success, and hopefully we can keep it going next year.”
The biggest adjustment this season, Tlusty said, wasn’t finding chemistry with a new linemate in Semin, but rather getting accustomed to the smaller ice after playing on an international sheet for a few months.
During the work stoppage, Tlusty played with HC Kladno in his home country of the Czech Republic. The forward skated on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Jaromir Jagr and was routinely logging close to 25 minutes a game; Jagr, Tlusty said, would want to play the full two minutes on the power play, and Plekanec wanted to play the full two minutes on the penalty kill, so Tlusty would find himself on the ice in every situation.
In 24 games with Kladno, Tlusty posted 12 goals and 11 assists (23 points) and was a plus-17.
“It was fun. It gave me confidence,” he said. “It was a great experience playing at home with players like that. It’s just something else when you get to play with your heroes.”
International play provided a bookend to Tlusty’s career NHL season, as he jetted to Europe to play for the Czech national team in the IIHF World Championship, his first such experience.
“Wearing jerseys with the Carolina logo is really unique and really nice,” he said. “Having the Czech national logo is going to be really fun too. I’m definitely going to enjoy it and have fun representing my country. It’s pride.
“We were planning on playing in May anyway,” he added.
Tlusty posted four points (1g, 3a) in eight tournament games, and he averaged 14:05 of ice time per game. He netted his lone goal in the first period of a commanding 7-0 victory over Norway that clinched a quarterfinal berth for the Czech Republic. The undefeated Switzerland squad edged the Czechs 2-1 in the quarterfinals, bringing an end to Tlusty’s season.
Team disappointment aside, Tlusty enjoyed tremendous success in 2012-13, both stateside and abroad, and there is reason to believe that will continue.
“If I put the effort in, the results will come,” Tlusty said. “Everyone is going to be excited about next season.”
“He’s a smart hockey player, and he’s at a perfect time of his career where he’s gone through the tough stuff and he appreciates the opportunity. He’s a real pro. He prepares himself mentally and physically for every game,” Muller said. “He was probably one of our most consistent players this year.”