Hanging over the collective head of the Vegas Golden Knights the past two seasons have been two questions — two quandaries, if you will — that won’t go away until there’s an established return of results.
- The health of Alex Tuch.
- Getting Tuch some consistent linemates.
So far, the outcomes are incomplete. Tuch has been bitten by the injury bug aplenty this season and the Golden Knights have yet to find a third line that could be that desired game changer.
This year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs will be a blessing in disguise for someone like Tuch, who had been out of game action since Feb. 13 due to a lower-body injury sustained in a 6-5 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues at home. Factor in a setback he had during rehab in early March, who knows if Tuch would’ve been ready to go in the postseason under normal circumstances?
When Tuch takes the ice for the Golden Knights’ exhibition game July 30 against the Arizona Coyotes, it will have been more than five months since he last played. He’s lost close to 10 pounds throughout the course of his rehab and says he’s in the best shape of his life.
“It really gave me the chance to take my time with the recovery process,” Tuch said Wednesday, his first comments since his injury. “Not push it and really make sure I was 100 percent. Coming into camp, I did everything I could possible to be ready.”
The Golden Knights are going to need Tuch at 100 percent, and playing close to how he did his first year and a half with Vegas, if they’re to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Tuch’s 37 points in his rookie year was just the beginning for Vegas. That production made his seven-year, $33.25 million extension ($4.75 million AAV) seem like a no-brainer. Even though he missed the first eight games of the 2019 season, Tuch rounded into form and became a 50-point scorer.
There were times Tuch was the most important player on the Golden Knights. He was at over a point-per-game pace through his first 19 games (eight goals, 12 assists) and eventually moved into a solidified top-six role with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty when both were deemed healthy from their own injuries.
Then, something happened. Mark Stone.
The trade for Stone at last year’s deadline began Tuch’s movement up and down the lineup. One night, he’d be a top-six option. Another night, he’d be on a third line as the only skater that could generate an iota of offense. Tuch’s production dipped drastically once Stone arrived, tallying nine points in 19 games. In the seven-game series against the Sharks in last season’s first round, Tuch had two whole points — none came in Games 5-7.
That’s not to say adding the potential future captain of the franchise is the reason why Tuch fell off, but going from skating with Stastny and Pacioretty to Ryan Carpenter and Cody Eakin was certainly a factor. Then the injuries mounted this season; Tuch missed the first 13 games with an upper-body injury sustained in the final preseason game against the Sharks, then got injured again his second game back against the Jets on Nov. 2, missing four more games.
“It’s definitely a fresh start,” Tuch said. “Obviously, I found myself with a little bit of the injury bug this year. Obviously, in and out of the lineup. I think I missed 30 games or so. It’s something I just have to leave in the past.”
He had a clean bill of health all the way to that February game against the Blues; he scored a goal prior to leaving that game, only his second in a 16-game stretch. Tuch’s linemates remained a revolving door; at one time it was Cody Glass and Eakin. There were times Chandler Stephenson skated on the left wing with Tuch and Eakin. Even William Carrier had some run on the top nine that was well deserved.
Tuch hasn’t had consistent linemates since the Cup run in 2018. Erik Haula and James Neal weren’t ideal long-term partners. Yet through injuries and testing of the Golden Knights’ depth, coach Peter DeBoer may have discovered a combination that can cure every woe Vegas has dealt with on the third line — a group that can be aggressive on the forecheck, can give Tuch enough space to operate, and play sound at both ends.
Stephenson and Tuch have been lined with Nicolas Roy the first week and a half through camp. The line has been impressive, as has Tuch. He looks explosive without the puck, and just as lethal with possession. It helps to skate with two playmakers that have gone above the call of duty in their first years with Vegas. Stephenson had a career-high 22 points in 41 games since being acquired from the Washington Capitals in December, and Roy had 10 points 28 games despite being the sacrificial lamb in Vegas’ transaction wire with the Chicago Wolves.
“We have to be physical, we have to be fast because that’s what we try to bring to each and every game is our speed,” Tuch said. “I’ve thought so far we’ve had some really good cohesion. Those two guys are really easy to play with.”
The third line will play a key role because of Vegas’ already-established top six. The Golden Knights will have a top line — Pacioretty, William Karlsson, and Stone — that can be as dangerous as any trio vying for the Cup. Ask DeBoer about two-thirds of that group — Stone and Pacioretty combined for 23 points in seven games with Stastny centering. The veteran Stastny is now the center on the second unit with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.
If Tuch takes the pressure off the top six and be the offensive force he’s capable of, it’ll make DeBoer’s job that much easier in this wave of uncertainty.
“Well, you know, Alex hasn’t had the year he’s wanted statistically,” DeBoer said. “But I don’t think he’s changed his game that much. Some of it is situational. You’re not playing in the top six most of the year, where before he had been. Our third line with injuries and stuff was really a rotating group so he never got comfortable.
“With Stevie and Roy right now, I think he has the potential to really make some noise here in the playoffs. He’s a mismatch guy for us.”
It brings back the thought of last year had Haula made a miraculous return in the playoffs after missing what would have been six months with the leg injury in Toronto. A top nine for Vegas would’ve included Tuch, Haula and whichever at the wing. Maybe Nikita Gusev? Too laughable.
Depth is going to be paramount in these playoffs, especially at the top of the West. The Blues had five players score at least 40 points this season and will add Vladimir Tarasenko back to their lineup. The Colorado Avalanche go as far as their top line goes, but added much needed depth to their bottom six (Joonas Donskoi, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nazem Kadri).
The Golden Knights can enter that conversation if the third line, including Tuch, can be that X-Factor. So far, albeit camp, Tuch’s looked great. As good as Stephenson and Roy have been, that line goes as far as Tuch goes.
For the first time in a while, he might have the tools at his disposal to show what he can do.
“Going forward, I’m just worried about the playoffs now,” Tuch said. “It doesn’t matter what happened before, how many injuries I had, who I played with or anything like that. I’m just worried about winning now.”