Matthew Tkachuk Is An Elite Agitator

Since he made his National Hockey League debut in the fall of 2016, Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk has burnt an indelible image in the memories of players throughout the league. That image isn’t a goal celebration or a glare after battles in the trenches – it’s a devilish, mischievous smirk, often punctuated by a dangling mouth-guard.

Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames, NHL
Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

For the better part of two seasons, Tkachuk has emerged as an extremely valuable player for the Flames. He plays a very complete two-way game, especially given his age, but the thing that elevates both Tkachuk and his teammates is that he’s such an incredible pain in the ass to play against. At a very young age, he’s already emerged as the league’s top agitator.

A Shutdown Specialist

Tkachuk was never supposed to make the Flames out of training camp in 2016. With the Flames spending big in the off-season to add veteran forward Troy Brouwer (and his Stanley Cup ring), the thought was that unless Tkachuk blew the doors off of the competition – as Sean Monahan did in 2013 and Sam Bennett did in 2014 – that the 2016 sixth overall selection would be returned to the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights.

But that’s just what Tkachuk ended up doing. He was easily one of the standouts of the Flames’ 2016 camp and earned a roster spot on opening night. He eventually found a home on the second line with veterans Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, and an unlikely niche as a rookie assigned to shut down the opposition’s top lines. Based on figures from Natural Stat Trick, Tkachuk was 15th in the league in Corsi For percentage among all players with 600+ even strength minutes played. As a rookie, he had better percentages than his veteran linemates. On a per-minute basis, he was fourth among all Flames regulars at suppressing shot attempts – at the time of this writing, he improved to best on the team as a sophomore.

An Offensive Threat

Playing with two veteran linemates had two distinct impacts on Tkachuk. First, he developed confidence playing away from the puck, as having Backlund and Frolik to watch his back and cover up for any defensive gaffes allowed him to be dogged in his puck pursuit. As his defensive skills became more honed at the NHL level, Tkachuk also became more confident with the puck and was able to take more chances – again, because of the safety net of his linemates and his confidence in his crew’s ability to regain the puck.

Quietly, Tkachuk has become a reliable offensive presence on a team that includes top-flight offensive talents like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. He’s been among the team leaders in shot attempts for per 60 minutes – an indication that pucks are going towards the opposing net while he’s on the ice – and an increasing proportion of those are coming off of his stick. He scored his 20th goal of the season on Feb. 11, surpassing his rookie total of 13, and has generated significantly more shots and scoring chances as a second year player than he did as a rookie. He’s been rewarded with additional power play time for his efforts, which has only served to further build his confidence with the puck.

A Premier Agitator

Dating back to his time with the U.S. National Development Team, Tkachuk has been known for being a player unafraid to engage with opponents and play in the “tough areas” of the net-front and the corners. His rough-and-tumble style has sometimes gotten him into trouble – he was suspended two games in his draft year for a slew footing incident, and has been suspended three times (for a total of four games) during his two NHL seasons. But he’s also emerged as one of the top players in the entire league in drawing penalties and getting under the skin of his opposition. Even factoring in the many penalties he took as a rookie, Tkachuk is one of the leaders in penalty differential.

(Figures via Natural Stat Trick, through Feb. 11 games.)

Player Taken Drawn Diff.
Connor McDavid 19 77 +58
Johnny Gaudreau 7 57 +50
David Pastrnak 24 55 +31
Nikolaj Ehlers 29 60 +31
Ryan O’Reilly 6 37 +31
Matthew Tkachuk 55 84 +29

Tkachuk’s become much better at playing on the edge without going over it, his suspensions notwithstanding. He’s taking significantly fewer penalties than he did last season and that’s resulted in an uptick in power play time for his club. Since he’s usually playing against some of the best players on the opposite team, drawing penalties has the added benefit of taking some skill off the ice for the other side. He’s the type of player that, to paraphrase Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan, frequently drags his teammates into the muck – in the sense that he forces players on both sides of the puck to physically engage when he’s on the ice. He’s been much more selective in employing that skill this season, which has only served to help his hockey club and give them opportunities to succeed.

Putting It All Together

The Flames’ Feb. 11 victory over the New York Islanders is a prime example of how good Tkachuk can be when he puts every element of his game to good use.

He drew three penalties: Mat Barzal for holding, Jason Chimera for holding, and Thomas Hickey for tripping, all in the Islanders zone. Those three penalties resulted in three Flames power plays that saw them generate seven shots and one goal. In addition, Tkachuk contributed two goals of his own by going to the tough areas of the ice – the net-front – and executing re-directions of point shots. In the case of the game-winning goal in the third period, he got in front of a Travis Hamonic shot that was sailing roughly four feet wide of the net and changed its trajectory enough for it to bonk off the post, off Jaroslav Halak, and into the net.

Tkachuk is one of the league’s most tantalizing combinations of size, speed, hockey sense and pure tenacity. He’s already one of the Flames’ best and most valuable players, and he’s only 20 years old. He’s going to get even better.