Modern player evaluation is predicated on the platonic balance of the unquantifiable — the eye test, if you will — and data-oriented observation, rooted in a number of analytical categories. Veer too far to the unquantifiable and you're stuck with mere narrative, which often can collapse under weighted examination. Basing evaluation solely off analytics, one can be presented as robotic, or transparently angling for a spot in the hockey operations department of a forward-thinking team.
Alex Tuch isn't hiding in plain sight — quite literally, at six-foot-four, 225 pounds, he's a giant on ice with an elite set of wheels that befit a much smaller player. Tuch isn't some sort of revelation brought on by careful player development, as he's a first-round pick who would be described as a five-tool player were it baseball or football.
Tuch is the perfect marriage of the eye test and superior analytics combining to build the profile of an underrated star. In this regard, he very well may be the NHL's most underrated player and should be considered a budding star for the Golden Knights, despite his raw statistical output sometimes suggesting otherwise. Extrapolated over an 82-game sample, Tuch would've been on pace for 26 goals and 50 points, solid numbers that fail to explain the totality of his game.
Let's start with the unquantifiable. Every time Tuch gets the puck, with room to accelerate, it seems like he's capable of dominating games on a whim. He's faster than almost everyone outside of the league's hyper-elite tier — the McDavid/MacKinnon category — and can drive to the net while gamely shaking off defenders like a vintage power forward, while boasting incredible hand-eye coordination.
Nominally situated on the Golden Knights' third line with Mattias Janmark and Nicolas Roy, Tuch can be moved throughout the lineup, as the situation calls for. This type of roster flexibility is a commonality within the league's elite teams — the Lightning are almost defined by it, the Hurricanes began to show it this year, and the Avalanche, when Nazem Kadri wasn't suspended, shared these traits too. Max Pacioretty was out of the lineup for most of Vegas's first-round series against Minnesota, and Tuch stepped up gamely on the first line with Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson.
The highlight-reel goal against the Wild in Game 4 is a testament to his high-end skill and strength. Matt Dumba has time to react and close off the lane but Tuch is too fast for him, and way too strong for a stick check to deter him with a head full of steam.
This wasn't the first time Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer elected to place Tuch on the Stone-Stephenson line. During a Feb. 22 game against the Avalanche, DeBoer moved Tuch up onto the premier line for matchup purposes, or rather, one express purpose: to use his game-breaking speed against MacKinnon defensively, and it worked better than anticipated. Tuch was a stalwart in that contest, adding two goals, and DeBoer raved about his versatile winger post-game.
"I liked him as much defensively tonight as I did offensively," DeBoer said to The Athletic's Jesse Granger. “Defensively he’s one guy who can really hunt guys like MacKinnon down from behind, because he has that speed. I thought he was very effective defensively, as well as the two goals he scored for us."
Here's the thing, though: Tuch isn't reliant on the caliber of his linemates to dictate his quality of play. Prior to Thursday's series-clinching win against the Avalanche, Tuch ranked fourth during the playoffs in individual expected goals for, according to Natural Stat Trick, a cumulative metric that accounts for how many goals a player is expected to score based on shot quality and location. Tuch was bumped up to second after Thursday night, trailing only David Pastrnak, whose Bruins have since been eliminated.
Tuch leads all playoff entrants with five scoring attempts off the rush, while ranking ninth in high-danger scoring chances. When Tuch has been on the ice, the Golden Knights hold a whopping 63.52 percent share of the expected goals. Not only has Tuch quietly been a play-driving force offensively, he's tied for third with nine takeaways, against just three giveaways. Using takeaways versus giveaways as the lone defensive metric may not be the soundest measure, but using it as an equivalent to an assist-to-turnover ratio in basketball, a 3:1 takeaway to giveaway margin is outstanding.
If the Golden Knights lift the Cup, either Mark Stone or Marc-Andre Fleury are grabbing the Conn Smythe Trophy before Stone meets Gary Bettman to lift the coolest trophy in North American men's sports. Tuch will be somewhere in the background. Although Stone, Fleury, Alex Pietrangelo and a host of other players will likely get the limelight, Tuch has the observational and analytical profile of a star, perhaps explaining why the fourth-year club is always in the running for the Cup.
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