The National Hockey League is a tough place to make a living. With only 690 roster spots up for grabs, it’s extremely difficult for players with experience to cement themselves on a big league club, let alone teenagers with zero NHL games to their credit. At the ripe old age of 18, Matthew Tkachuk has made a strong case for full-time employment with the Calgary Flames.
Born in the Phoenix area but raised in St. Louis and a product of that city’s minor-league system, Tkachuk impressed with his mix of physicality and offensive talent as part of the U.S. National Development Team as a 17-year-old. He made the jump to the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights the following season, serving as one-third of junior hockey’s most dangerous line alongside Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak. His strong play earned him raves from NHL scouts and he managed to score the Memorial Cup-winning goal in overtime against Rouyn-Noranda despite playing with a lingering lower-body injury. His season ended at the NHL Draft in Buffalo, where the Flames selected him sixth overall.
Through his initial nine-game audition with the Flames, he’s proven to be a player worthy of a full-time NHL gig.
Tkachuk has played on three different lines with the Flames in his short stint. He began on a scoring line with Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer, where he received tough match-ups (with favourable offensive zone starts) and helped create chances. He was then transitioned into a checking role alongside veteran center Matt Stajan and bruising wingers Micheal Ferland and Alex Chiasson. On that line, he was able to throw his body around and create havoc for the opposition despite starting much of his shifts in the defensive zone. After that, he found a somewhat stable home on Calgary’s shutdown line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik.
While Tkachuk’s performance on the Bennett and Stajan lines were impressive, you could find caveats for his success. With Bennett, his line often started in the offensive zone and didn’t have to lug the puck through two zones worth of defenders to generate scoring chances. With Stajan’s line, he was frequently facing third and fourth-line opposition, so even though he was playing primarily in the defensive zone, it was easy to lug the puck into the offensive end. With Backlund and Frolik, Tkachuk’s trio has faced tough opposition and been buried in the defensive zone to start their shifts. They’ve consistently moved the puck in the right direction and been one of the most effective lines at both shutting down the opposition and generating scoring chances.
After Calgary’s game against Washington, Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan responded to praise for Backlund and Frolik for shutting-down Alex Ovechkin’s line by reminding the assembled media that Tkachuk was on that line, too.
“I’ve got to keep playing to my strengths.” – Matthew Tkachuk pic.twitter.com/MtI9QDx7q4
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) November 1, 2016
In terms of possession stats, Tkachuk has emerged as one of the best regular players on the Flames roster. In terms of “pure” possession stats that aren’t adjusted for game situations, Tkachuk is among the team leaders in percentage for Corsi, Fenwick, goals, shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances. Even when adjusting these stats or scaling them relative to Tkachuk’s ice-time, he’s among the team’s best players.
Gulutzan has frequently praised Tkachuk’s puck management, in the sense that he protects the puck very well (particularly given his youth) and tends to make strong decisions in terms of getting the puck deep into the offensive zone. With the early season struggles for Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, having Tkachuk emerge as a player that can carry the mail (so to speak) has really helped the Flames coaching staff manage the bench and stay in games. Rather than sheltering Tkachuk’s usage, as they did in previous instances during Monahan and Bennett’s rookie seasons, they’ve been able to use him in order to shelter other players.
Room for Improvement
The encouraging factors about Tkachuk’s game are his consistency and his smart puck management. He’s still an exuberant 18-year-old hockey player, and that occasionally comes through in negative ways. His calling card in Junior was combining physicality with scoring prowess. His ability to agitate, draw penalties and create opportunities hasn’t yet translated to the NHL level.
In fact, he’s one of the team’s leaders in taking penalties, to the point where he was benched for the third period of Calgary’s recent win over Ottawa for being one of several players that took, what Gulutzan termed, “stupid penalties.” He’s a player that plays on “the edge” of what’s usually acceptable physicality, but that’s a huge component of what makes him effective. Finding the balance between what he can get away with and what he can’t, will be a big step in his development. The hope is his judgement improves, but he doesn’t lose his fearlessness in terms of engaging in the offensive zone.
Tkachuk hasn’t set the world on fire offensively, and he’s not yet as successful in the NHL as Toronto’s Auston Matthews or Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine. But, on a Flames club that’s struggled to find consistency or to engage in games physically or emotionally, he’s been one of the team’s best. Not bad for a player that doesn’t turn 19 until December.