Entering the 2020-21 season, the Calgary Flames were excepted not only to compete for a playoff spot but get in. On paper, they have one of the better rosters in the Scotia North Division. They were also able to sign Jacob Markstrom, who many view as one of the game’s best goaltenders. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gone their way from the very get to, as they have struggled to find consistency and gain any type of rhythm.
The frustrating start led to the firing of head coach Geoff Ward, who was replaced by a familiar face in Darryl Sutter. While the hope was that he would bring more accountability to the group, some questioned whether or not his old-school approach would work on today’s generation of players. So far, the results have been mixed. Through his first three games behind the bench, they went 3-0 and appeared to be back on track. Since however, things have cooled off. In fact, with back-to-back losses against the Ottawa Senators, you could argue their season has hit rock bottom.
The biggest issue under Sutter so far has been the team’s lack of ability to score goals, as they have just 18 in eight games with him behind the bench, including two in their last three. While this certainly cannot be blamed directly on the new bench boss, his deployment of players is not helping.
Where Is Tkachuk?
When Sutter was hired, everyone knew it would mean more evenly distributed minutes throughout the lineup, given his tendencies throughout his coaching career to roll four lines. In my personal opinion, this is a great strategy when in a playoff spot as it gives some rest to your top players. However, it isn’t as ideal when trying to claw back into the playoff race. There have been several players whose ice time has been cut under Sutter, however, none more so than Matthew Tkachuk.
In theory, Tkachuk should be a perfect player for Sutter given his ability to put up points but also play a physical, hardworking style of game. For whatever reason, however, this hasn’t been the case. Through the eight games Sutter has spent behind the bench, Tkachuk has received over 16 minutes of ice time just once, while three of those games have seen him play less than 15 minutes.
Non-surprisingly, Tkachuk’s offensive numbers have taken a hit from the lack of ice time, as he has just one goal and three assists in those eight games. Prior to Sutter coming behind the bench, he had 21 points in 26 games and had played below 16 minutes just one time while playing over 20 minutes in 11 contests.
It’s unclear if Tkachuk’s lack of ice time is a message being sent by Sutter or just what he believes is the proper amount for the 23-year-old. Either way, it needs to change in a hurry. Not only is it causing the team’s offence to dry up and push them further and further away from a playoff position, but it is also without a doubt irritating Tkachuk, who most view as the future captain of this team.
Though it certainly hasn’t gotten to that point yet, the Flames certainly do not want to sour their relationship with Tkachuk. Not only is he likely their future captain, but he is also their best player. If there is anybody capable of bringing Calgary back into the playoff hunt, it’s him, but he cannot do so if he’s averaging less than 16 minutes per game.
Minutes Going to the Wrong Players
As mentioned, Sutter has had a tendency to roll four lines throughout his lengthy coaching career. However, there is a difference between rolling and playing guys on your bottom-six more than your top. Take Milan Lucic, for example. Lucic has had a solid season with 13 points in 34 games. However, the fact those are considered solid totals prove the point that he is a bottom-six forward at this point in his career.
Despite this being clear to most, while Tkachuk has had just one game over 16 minutes with Sutter, Lucic has had three. Yes, Lucic’s compete level this season has been admirable, but he cannot be playing more minutes than your best player. If it were in one game to send a message, sure. But to do it for this long while your team is slipping further and further from a playoff spot is unacceptable.
Play Your Big Guns
Hopefully, whatever has been going on these past eight games can stay in the past, and Tkachuk can get the ice time he needs in order to produce. By all accounts, he hasn’t had a great season, even before Ward was fired. However, this team needs a major boost in order to get back into the playoff hunt, and there is no other player on their roster capable of providing that more than Tkachuk.
Former Jr. A player turned writer. Cover both the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, and am part of both the Flames Faceoff and Oilers Overtime podcasts.