As Cliff Fletcher continues his evaluations of the Maple Leafs, it is Jiri Tlusty’s turn to slip under the microscope.
Until now, the most attention the 19-year-old winger had received in Toronto was when some risquŽ self-portraits showed up on the Internet. Now he’ll get a different type of exposure; it will be his talent laid bare.
Tlusty, it is expected, will skate against St. Louis tonight on the left side of Toronto’s top line with centre Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov. Long-term shoulder injuries to the Alexander Steen and Alexei Ponikarovsky, the team’s top two left wingers, have created an opening for the teenager Toronto drafted out of the Czech Republic 13th overall in 2006.
It will, finally, be a better indication of where the skills of the first rounder fit on the squad. If he can get over the holy-cripes-I’m skating-beside-Sundin feeling and display his offensive abilities it might also allow him to break out of a rut that, oddly, had him playing limited minutes on the third line. That role often had onlookers wondering if the kid wouldn’t be better served playing his butt off in the minors instead of sitting on it with the Leafs.
But, now, necessity has created a mother of an opportunity and Tlusty is well aware of its significance.
"It’s still the same hockey. (But) it’s a little pressure because I’ll play with the best player in Toronto Maple Leafs’ history," said Tlusty yesterday. "It’s nice for me. I’m looking forward to the game. I will try and help the team and hopefully I will score a goal because I need to score goals. We need to win games."
You can argue Tlusty’s grasp of Leafs’ lore — Sundin, though, should be at least near the top on anyone’s "best-of" list — but you can’t question his earnestness or his understanding of his eventual role with the club.
It is, though, that depth of respect he has for his new centre that might get him in trouble. Tlusty, yesterday, made several references to trying to get to the puck to Sundin at every opportunity and he talked openly about his own anxiousness at what is about to unfold.
"It’s Mats Sundin and hopefully I will be not too much nervous," he said. That wide-eyed subservience is what the Leafs have tried to avoid with Tlusty since he was called up for a second stint with the club in late December. Like an apprentice learning his craft, coach Paul Maurice wanted the youngster to practise with the big club and, mostly, watch the likes of Sundin from the bench to break down the aura of playing in the NHL.
"That’s the proper stages (to go through) for young players," he explained. "It’s not a call-up from the Marlies and then, here, your linemate is Mats Sundin. It’s coming in and learning the game, learning the systems, watching Mats and taking the steps to get an opportunity. If he doesn’t play there for 15 games, it won’t be a failure on Jiri’s part. He’s going to go in and play as long as he can and as hard as he can. If all goes well, he’ll be able to do a little producing while he’s there.
"At the same time, the pressure isn’t on Jiri Tlusty to make that line go. Mats and Nikky will do whatever they need to do."
Tlusty, who has only three goals and three assists in 28 NHL games, has been patient with the process. "Everybody has some small job on the team and my job was playing on the third line and waiting for a chance. Hopefully I did good," he said. Maurice, though he hinted others might also skate in Steen’s spot on the top line, said he was confident Sundin and Antropov will be able to help nurture Tlusty.
"You worry about a guy looking for them all the time with the puck. But I do think Jiri has shown he makes quality decisions with the puck regardless. He’s been in the room and played enough now that hopefully he’ll be able to just go out and play."
Tlusty gets promotion
As Cliff Fletcher continues his evaluations of the Maple Leafs, it is Jiri Tlusty’s turn to slip under the microscope.<br /><br /><br />Until now, the most attention the 19-year-old winger had received in Toronto was when some risquŽ self-portraits showed up on the Internet. Now he’ll get a different type of exposure; it will be his talent laid bare.