The question above has been asked frequently since the Flames drafted Tkachuk sixth overall in June. In fact, since Sean Monahan scored 20 goals as a freshly drafted 18-year-old a few years ago, we’ve been asking this question annually about different Calgary prospects to varying degrees. But what about Tkachuk? Can he make this roster out of camp? And can he stay there all season long?
Comparing Tkachuk to Monahan is easy. Both were taken sixth overall, both are from the OHL, both seem physically ready enough to play at the highest level, and, like Monahan, Tkachuk will turn 19 in the early-isa stages of this season. Tkachuk certainly aware of the similarities and he told me as much on the draft floor a couple months ago.
“I’ve heard kind of the same thing with him is he had to work on his skating a little bit,” Tkachuk said. “He worked on that all summer and became a really good skater. I hope to do the same thing because I want to have a similar impact as he did and just have a really good impact on the team next year. I want to. I’m a big kid and it’s all about gaining more speed. If I do that, I’ll be ready.”
Let’s delve into what factors will determine whether or not this happens for Tkachuk or not.
Now vs. then
Calgary’s situation has changed slightly since Monahan cracked the roster in October 2013. If you think back to what the roster looked like then, you can understand how much easier it would have been for Monahan to earn a spot. Players like Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, Michael Frolik, and yes, Monahan weren’t on the roster three years ago making it much easier for a young forward to work his way in.
Even though the Flames are thinnest in the depth department on the wing, a competitive Tkachuk certainly wouldn’t be a guarantee to make the cut. Below is a quick look at what we might be looking at in terms of Calgary’s depth chart this season, courtesy Operation Sports Generators.
The biggest question for me is where Tkachuk fits with this team’s depth chart. What I posted above is not necessarily a representation of how the Flames will structure their forward lines, but more a pure depth chart. For the team to keep Tkachuk this season, they’ll have to put him in a spot to succeed, which means tailored minutes and competition.
The fact Tkachuk is a natural left winger definitely helps his cause, because there just aren’t a lot of great options there. The biggest factor affecting him might be what the team decides to do with Bennett. If Calgary opts to continue using their 2014 first round pick down the middle, a spot for Tkachuk seems a whole lot more likely. If they revert back to using Bennett on the wing, all of a sudden Tkachuk’s job becomes more difficult.
Regardless, it’s fairly clear the task of cracking the NHL roster is going to be more difficult for Tkachuk than it was for Monahan in 2013. That said, if Tkachuk shows in training camp and the preseason the potential he can produce in the NHL, I think the opportunity will be there for him to displace someone.
As Tkachuk said in the quote at the top, he knows he has to work on his skating. Many observers believe Tkachuk has the size and strength to play with men right now, but his ability to keep up is much more in question. Very much the same was said about Monahan coming out of his draft, too.
If you remember back to 2013, the Flames took three players in the first round for the first time in team history. What set Monahan apart from Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk, though, was his commitment to conditioning at the level of an NHLer. Monahan knew he needed to work extremely hard on his skating and foot speed if he was going to crack an NHL roster and Calgary raved about how much better he looked in that regard upon arriving at training camp.
The challenge was laid down to Tkachuk in a very similar light and it sure does sound like he’s responded, at least in his own words. Tkachuk chatted with Sportsnet 590 in Toronto this week and says he’s still focused solely on making the Flames this fall.
“I haven’t had my mind on anything other than that,” Tkachuk said. “I think it would be unfair to myself to think otherwise. Realistically, that’s my goal and for some people it could be unrealistic but for myself I think it’s a realistic opportunity. That opportunity isn’t just given to me, its got to be earned. I felt like I’ve done everything I possibly could this summer to get myself healthy and get myself back in the best shape I could be.”
Of course, words like that sound great in late August, but the proof will be in the pudding in a few weeks. That said, it sounds like Tkachuk has taken this offseason very seriously, so I’m quite intrigued to see how that translates to training camp.
What’s best for the player
Even if Tkachuk looks like he can hang with the best in the world this season, Calgary will still have to weigh whether the NHL is best for his development. Sending a player back is rarely, if ever, damaging and if the circumstances aren’t ideal, maybe London is the best place for Tkachuk. Looking back at Sam Bennett’s rookie season can help us with this conversation.
Bennett’s rookie season certainly had some ups and downs, with his four goal game and two 18 game goalless droughts serving as polar opposites. The question is, was the NHL unquestionably the right place for Bennett to be last year? I think the Flame made the right decision, but it’s also very much open for debate.
I’m well aware this is a hindsight conversation, which is always an easier perspective to draw an opinion from. I also know Calgary didn’t really have the option to return Bennett to the OHL after debuting him in the 2015 playoffs. But for the sake of this article, let’s just assume he was eligible to return to Kingston last season so I can sit in the devil’s advocate chair.
Had Bennett stayed in the OHL for his 19-year-old season last year, the Flames would have benefitted in a couple different ways. First, he’d likely have dominated the league, especially if his performance at the end of the 2014-2015 campaign was any indication; Bennett had 24 points in 11 regular season games after returning from shoulder surgery that year.
Second, it would have delayed Bennett’s second contract by a year. Now, Bennett doesn’t look to be in line for a huge bump in the same fashion as Monahan or Gaudreau, but he’s still going to get a decent raise. Knowing where Calgary’s cap is going, any delay in adding money to the cap can be looked at as a positive.
Even knowing all of that, though, I still think the Flames made the right choice. I’ve always been of the opinion if a player belongs in the NHL, he should be playing there, regardless of any of the other stuff. My stance isn’t going to change in Tkachuk’s case, but the junior hockey conversation is still a relevant one to have.
It’s too early to make a definitive judgment on this one because training camp hasn’t even started. However, I think we can at the very least come to a conclusion as to what the climate will be like for Tkachuk come September. It’s definitely going to be more difficult to crack this roster than it was when Monahan did so in 2013.
That said, the opportunity will be there if Tkachuk performs come camp and the exhibition schedule. Most importantly, it won’t be a bad thing if Calgary ends up with a tough decision on their hands. It’ll mean Tkachuk looks like another solid young addition to already impressive core, and there’s nothing wrong with that.