The evolution of Alex Tuch becoming the Golden Knights’ most important player

The progression of 89 in Year 2 has been one of the bright spots in Vegas’ rough start.

It’s about 15 minutes after playing one of the more complete games of his young career, and I approach Alex Tuch with the simple line of, “You look like you’re having fun lately.”

A large smile comes across the face of the 6-foot-4 power forward with a subtle laugh, to which he responds, “Someone might want to hit me if I keep smiling.”

Tuch, hardly evidence to suggest otherwise, says he’s just below defenseman Nate Schmidt when it comes to the smiling power rankings in the Golden Knights locker room. Vegas will get No. 88 back in the lineup on Sunday to anchor the blue line. Right now, it’s No. 89 that’s the most important player on the Golden Knights in his absence.

Since making his season debut Oct. 24, and inking a seven-year contract five days prior, Tuch has 11 points in 11 games; the 22-year-old forward is on a four-game point streak (two goals, four assists) including a goal and an assist Wednesday in a 5-0 Vegas win against the Anaheim Ducks.

“We had a lot to smile about,” Tuch said. “It was a great team win, great team effort. We battled, we started in the defensive zone, we were going hard at the net and we made it hard on them tonight.”

Through their 8-10-1 start, the Golden Knights have run into habit of racking up these supposed “statement” wins that point to signs of the reigning Western Conference Champions getting back on track; a road win in Philadelphia, an overtime win against Ottawa, and now two wins against the Ducks at home.

Vegas hasn’t been able to string any wins together outside of a stretch of nine points in six games from Oct. 13-28.

But Wednesday’s shutout victory might be what the Golden Knights needed to right the ship. It starts with Tuch and the revamped second line that had been offensively anemic for the better part of 19 games. Tuch had two points, Max Pacioretty had two assists for his multi-point game as a Golden Knight, and Cody Eakin scored two goals to propel Vegas’ offense in a much-needed win.

Leading the charge was Tuch, who has been the most important player (and possibly best player) for the Golden Knights. It started on his power-play goal at 17:42 of the first period, off a terrific deflection by Pacioretty in front that led to Tuch’s fifth goal of the season.

Tuch being a net-front presence isn’t anything new, but that was momentum that carried the two second-line forwards for the remainder of the game. Case in point, 25 seconds into the second period — Eakin’s first of two goals, set up by a solid, simple pass from 89.

While Tuch gets credit for the primary assist, the chip off the board from Pacioretty that sprung the 2-on-1 is the play that made it happen. That subtle play was one of many reasons Tuch felt the second line was as great as it was; getting pucks out of the zone quicker and turning it into offense at the other end.

“It starts with Pacioretty down in the defensive zone, and that helps, especially my game,” Tuch said about the Eakin goal. “When I’m able to get that puck in space, that’s where I’m most effective.”

It helps to be 6-foot-4 with the ability to race down the ice like a gazelle on skates. But it’s not just offensively where Tuch is blooming into such a force.

“He’s definitely a phenomenal player,” Pacioretty said. “Since the second he’s laced up his skates after his injury, he’s been a force out there. He’s been every night, very hard to contain, he’s skating very well.”

If there’s one player that benefits from Tuch’s presence, it’s Pacioretty. He hasn’t been as involved on the stat sheet as he would like, but Pacioretty hasn’t had the luxury of consistent linemates. That’s including Tuch missing the first eight games of the season due to an upper-body injury.

When the second line gets healthy — meaning Paul Stastny centering a line with Pacioretty and Tuch — the line’s full potential will be reached. Right now, it’s at a steady pulse with Eakin at center filling in for Erik Haula (month-to-month, leg). Eakin has also benefited from being on the second line; he’s on a four-game point streak since taking over for Haula. Might as well call it the “Tuch Effect,” or something less corny.

“His skill level is through the roof,” Pacioretty said. “He’s such a force out there; not just offensively, you saw him with those backchecks and being able to play well defensively.”

Spend five minutes talking to Tuch, and it’s not hard to understand why he could be the captain for this franchise one day. Even for as good as he’s been at 22, he’s still trying to learn. He constantly asks questions to the likes of Pacioretty and Stastny, picking their brains on how to get better. Vice-versa, Tuch’s play helps Pacioretty because his speed opens up more space on the ice to allow for more scoring opportunities.

“He times his skating really well, and that’s a skill people don’t often see,” Pacioretty said. “The one thing he’s very good at is getting the puck in stride and when he’s doing so, he’s able to catch a lot of d-men flat-footed. When he turns the corner ... he’s so big, he can get body position and get a lot of chances.”

Giving Tuch that seven-year extension was a sign of good faith for an organization that is trying to establish its core for the foreseeable future. Tuch’s development through his first 11 games is already a sign that Vegas made a wise, financial decision. And if he’s the reason the Golden Knights can get some wins together, he could be one of the best bargains in the League.

“I’m just trying to come in, work hard every day, listen to my teammates and coaches, and win hockey games,” Tuch said. “I think if I do that, I have the ability to produce a little more than I did last year. It’s a whole other year of experience.”