By the time Sean Monahan turned 19, he had played five games for the Calgary Flames after being their sixth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Playing a very sheltered role, he had four goals and six points.
Matthew Tkachuk turns 19 today. He’s on the Flames roster and he was a sixth overall pick, but the similarities with Monahan end there.
Tkachuk is younger than Monahan was when he made the Flames by a few months, but he’s already more of an impact player than his teammate was at the same age.
Prior to Saturday night’s game with the Jets, with many Winnipeg media members in attendance at his morning scrum, Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan assessed his club’s youngest player.
“He’s just a hockey player,” said Gulutzan. “He’s really gritty. High hockey IQ, high compete level would be, in my opinion, his two greatest assets. He goes to the net, he does all the little things well in the game. We’ve used him at the end of games. His puck management skills have been just outstanding throughout the year. He drags guys into the battle. Al MacNeil said it the best to me the other day: he thinks the other team is the enemy every time he puts on his jersey and that’s the way he plays.”
If you were fortunate enough to watch him last season in the Ontario Hockey League or, like me, you saw him at the Memorial Cup in Red Deer, Tkachuk was sold as a really high-tempo offensive player with smarts and size. What nobody was expecting was his two-way play. While Monahan spent a lot of time on Calgary’s third line as a rookie, getting sheltered zone starts and targeted deployments aimed at giving him a fighting chance, Gulutzan has arguably thrown Tkachuk to the wolves.
Playing on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, Tkachuk’s in the unaccustomed position of playing shutdown against some of the NHL’s top guys. He’s seen the top two lines of just about every team the Flames have played against in recent memory. He’s had 50% offensive zone starts just eight times in 27 games. Yet his Corsi Rel – a measure of the puck possession difference when a player is on the ice relative to away from it – has been in the red just eight times.
In short? Tkachuk’s played against top opposition, usually starting in the defensive zone, and he’s been better than the team average in puck possession in 19 of 27 games.
Gulutzan seems impressed by Tkachuk’s performance thus far, particularly his two-way play.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” said Gulutzan. “I was expecting to have to chip out some of the habits. But he’s been, I can say it openly, he’s been fantastic in those areas, the defensive areas, the puck management, getting things deep, and that’s why we aren’t afraid to play him at the end of games. He’s shown a maturity past 18 in that side of the game, for sure.”
Tkachuk’s final game as an 18-year-old was pretty much par for the course. He played primarily against the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, and kept the puck moving in the right direction – he finished with a team-leading 70% Corsi For percentage with 60% of his faceoffs in the offensive end. He had three primary assists; he set up the game’s first goal and game-winning goal.
On a night like last, perhaps most impressive is what Tkachuk didn’t get involved in; he played a tactical game with some physicality, but he never got involved in the chippy play that emerged as the game wore on and the Jets got frustrated. For a player who’s become defined almost as much thus far for his agitating presence as he has for his offense or 200-foot play, his restraint and judgement was perhaps the most interesting thing on display.