Consider this an open letter to all opponents of the Calgary Flames. Technically it could apply to coaches and players of all the teams in the NHL, but it applies particularly to Pacific Division teams who face off against the Flames more than twice per season.
At this time last season, Johnny Gaudreau was the Flames’ most valuable player. He was in the conversation for the Hart Trophy before sliding a bit after the 2019 NHL All-Star break. Mark Giordano, the eventual Norris Trophy winner, was the second most valuable player after Gaudreau. Matthew Tkachuk was the third.
This season, Tkachuk is the Flames’ most valuable player. That’s not saying he’s the most talented, the word “valuable” refers to his overall contribution to helping his team win. His passion, his sense of urgency, his ability to come through in clutch moments when everyone else seems to have given up, combined with his immense skill, is what makes him the Flames’ MVP.
Your game plan when you face the Flames needs to include a strategy to shut down Tkachuk. So far, you are doing a very poor job of it. In fact, you’re getting played.
A common term for getting a player’s strengths and weaknesses figured out is to have “the book” on them: Mikko Koskinen has a weak glove hand; Erik Karlsson hasn’t been able to pivot very well since his groin injury. The book is out on these players.
Since none of you seem to have a book on Tkachuk, I’m going to help you write one. Get out a blank notepad and write his name on the front with a Sharpie. Why would a Flames fan help us shut down Calgary’s MVP? I guess I’m just in a giving mood today.
3 Things You Need to Know About Matthew Tkachuk
Tkachuk may not be able to leave opponents in the dust like Connor McDavid, or knock them on their backsides like Dustin Byfuglien, but he gets under your skin better than almost anyone.
Virtually everything you need to know about Tkachuk’s M.O. can be learned by watching his altercations with Edmonton Oilers tough guy Zack Kassian on Nov. 17, 2018, and Jan. 11, 2020. The Cliff Notes version is that, on both occasions, Tkachuk pushed an emotionally vulnerable opponent to his breaking point to help his team gain an advantage in a close game. He drew a penalty by refusing to fight Kassian when the Oilers winger had already decided a fight was happening.
In both games, Kassian’s penalty proved costly. The Flames won those installments of the Battle of Alberta by narrow margins. To make sure the same doesn’t happen to you, I recommend you write down the following three points in your new Tkachuk Book:
1) Tkachuk Is Not a Scumbag Just For the Sake of It
He’s keenly aware of the rules, the lines referees will draw, and yes, what he can get away with. Every move he makes to tick you off is a calculated one. He’s thought through the risks and rewards. Bet on it.
The notion that he’s a dirty player, and that he’s not aware or can’t control it, is baloney. Watch the tape from a game when the Flames are leading by a big margin, say three goals or more. You may notice Tkachuk turns the scumbag-meter way down when the Flames have a comfortable lead, when the game does not feel at risk of slipping away. As soon as the game gets tight and the W is in jeopardy, that’s when we see him peak as an agitator.
He also cools off against non-divisional opponents and Eastern Conference teams. Think of all the classic Tkachuk moments of the past three seasons. Maybe watch a highlight package on YouTube. You’ll see a lot of moments involving the Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings – the Kassian-Tkachuk rivalry is more interesting than the Drew Doughty-Tkachuk rivalry right now. (Don’t @ me). The Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks have had their share of dust-ups with Calgary’s No. 19 as well.
Everything he does is a calculated move to gain those two points in the standings. It’s not personal, which brings me to the next point:
2) Winning Is More Important than the Hockey Code
According to “The Code,” the most common criticism of Tkachuk is a valid one: If he’s going to run around ticking people off, then he should be prepared to stick up for himself, (read: drop the gloves and punch some faces).
Kassian had a few words to say about Tkachuk’s apparent lack of respect for the unwritten rules of hockey, stating via Bardown:
“If you’re going to throw hits like that, you’ve got to answer the bell once in a while. […] He wouldn’t fight me two years ago, said I was a fourth-liner. Now I have 13 goals. What’s the excuse now?”
The excuse is that doing so wouldn’t help his team win. Spending four minutes on the man advantage, however, helped a lot.
Tkachuk may be a moderate believer in “The Code,” but he places more importance on winning hockey games. That means drawing penalties and using antics to throw opponents off their game, all while trying not to get injured. He does it very effectively.
Tkachuk isn’t trying to bring his team honor. This is the Battle of Alberta, not Disney’s Mulan.
3) If Tkachuk Is Targeting You, Chances Are He Wants You to Fight Him.
As an All-Star forward, Tkachuk isn’t really obligated to fight anyone. Despite what the critics say, he will square off when he’s not way out of his weight class.
The man is an agitator, not an enforcer. He’s not going to fight your team’s goon. He also won’t ask his team’s goon to fight your goon. If he does get on your goon’s bad side, usually he will take his punches and try his best not to get injured until a referee intervenes, (from “Tkachuk on refusing to drop gloves with Kassian: “Wasn’t going to fight that guy”, National Post, 18/11/2018).
You can call it “turtling,” but he’s getting under your skin and drawing penalties (and possibly even suspensions) in crucial moments.
There’s a reason Tkachuk is consistently among the league leaders in penalties drawn and he has a net-positive penalty differential. You guys keep taking the bait. If you let the agitator push you over the edge, you’re playing right into his hands.
As the old military saying goes: “If the enemy wants you to do something, you should definitely do it.” Okay, I just made that up, but the point is it’s ridiculous to fight Tkachuk when his strategic move is clearly to try to goad you into a fight.
Here’s a little reverse psychology for you: Next time Tkachuk tries to provoke you into losing your cool, keep your cool instead. That might even agitate him a little bit, give him a taste of his own medicine. Agitated players make mistakes and if you can get the Flames’ MVP to make mistakes, you might just beat them.
I hope these pointers enhance your playbook on how to beat Tkachuk. Knowledge is power. Use it wisely.