Happy birthday, Matthew: Tkachuk turns 19 with a strong performance

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.

      • Kevin R

        Not sure you can make that assertion yet. Bennett’s start was way better than Dry Saddle & that was where the fan base jumped all over it. But Dry Saddle has done better but look at the chances he’s getting on the PP & wingers, with McDavid no less. Bennett hasn’t had the PP opportunity nor has he had the wingers, until now. With Gaudreau, if we can just keep them together for awhile, I think we will see Benny move up the curve real quick. He looked great on Saturday night. The goals him & Hamilton scored were such fast laser beam shots, I didn’t see them go in until the crowd erupted. Benny has started to stick handle more as he plays more with Gaudreau. Lets compare come March.

    • Flames Fan in Edmonchuck

      For Bouma straight across then okay. Otherwise…. for real though, not sure where he would fit. Would rather wait for Poirier, Shin, Klimchuck, etc…. not sure his ceiling is any higher… am I wrong? I know his draft pedigree is high…

      • Parallex

        I’d take him straight up in exchange for Provostian Lance Bouma… AKA Lance Bouma. I mean he’s younger, plays C, and is less expensive so why not. But I’ll take a hard pass on anything more.

  • piscera.infada

    Being completely honest here, I was not a fan of the prospects of drafting Tkachuk. Once he was drafted, I didn’t feel great about it. I thought there were better prospects available.

    I am very happy to be wrong. Kid’s a gamer. The issues I thought were there, don’t appear to be much of anything. At this point, I’m happy to admit it. Couldn’t be more pleased he’s a Flame. Hope he’s here for a long, long time.

  • TurkeyLips

    Well earned praise for Tkachuk, should be a special birthday for the young stud.

    As other posters have duly noted, this guy’s playmaking on all three assists last night was elite. His hockey intuition is second to none and the no-nonsense attitude that goes along with it makes it so nice to have him playing for your club.

    There’s going to be three very unhappy teams once they realize how grievous the error was in not picking him at the 2016 draft. He was unanimously voted best OHL player at the draft by every coach and scout familiar with the league yet still no talked about him. Brief blips by Luc-Dubois and Puljujarvi seemed to blind people to Tkachuk’s ultra high point production combined with a very NHL translatable skillset.

    Our two major division rivals being a part of that little group makes this all the sweeter. Oilers are going to ruin Puljujarvi, and even that makes this hockey fan a little sad. Canucks taking Juolevi over Tkachuk makes logistic sense from a rebuilding perspective but they still passed on the best player available and we all know that is a big no-no, so good job and thank-you Vanhoover. Columbus took a huge gamble on Luc-Dubois but it already looks like a questionable pick at #3, an error again driven by positional need drafting rather than bpa.

    • cberg

      The problem with Tkachuk’s draft year points was his linemates were so good on their own that it clouded the picture as to whom was carrying whom?

      The other thing you mentioned that if so, so easy to overlook is “a very NHL translatable skillset”. It is so, so easy to focus on points at draft time because those NHL skills you never really know until a few years later whether they will work out or not at the NHL level.

      We were fortunate to draft him and its fun to see him develop.

      • TurkeyLips

        Almost 2.0 ppg over full season in the OHL and folks questioned whether they weren’t a legitimate reflection of his talent? Linemates can affect a guys production but to think his secondary assists mattered less than his linemates goal totals is simplistic. I’ll never understand how his insane production was casually waved off by so many because of this idea that setting up a play matters less than actually scoring goals.

        It’s simple, he wasn’t flashy or fast and was conveniently playing with players who were. He also wasn’t an exotic Finn. But that doesn’t matter, because hockey has loads of chippy plays down low that win and define games as much as beauty goals. That’s his wheelhouse, and even then let’s consider him scoring key goals in tournament games, with the same point total as Matthews at world juniors. By any measurable metric he was helping his team win games in a huge way, making the line-carrying debate all the more ambiguous and silly considering his current NHL impact – more ppg than Backlund and Frolik at the ripe age of 19.

        • Baalzamon

          You can’t just dismiss the fact that a player is merely a distant third in team scoring in his draft year though. We were fortunate with Tkachuk, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sort of thing from the London Knights before. Kostitsin-Gagner-Kane was even more prolific than Tkachuk-Dvorak-Marner. Only one of those three even came close to living up to the hype.

          So sometimes you end up with a Tkachuk and you’re happy. More often it’s a Sam Gagner.

          • McRib

            Sam Gagner didn’t lead all draft eligible prospects in NHLe like Tkachuk did, Tkachuk also had a 1.48 PPG against USHL/NCAA competition the year before.

            That said I understand your logic, but what really gets me is that most people had Olli Juolevi as the best defender in the draft when he only had 0.74 PPG game playing on that same high powered PP of Londons (and with Laine at World Jrs). Why was everyone downgrading Tkachuk, but Juolevi was immune? Joulevi wasn’t even close to being a Top. 5 offensive defender in the draft even on that PP and most were sure he was the best defender in the draft (even someone like Jake Bean had way more upside offensively and everyone knew he wouldn’t even be a Top. 10 pick. If Vancouver wanted to draft a defenseman they should have traded down). Olli Juolevi isn’t even the best Finnish prospect on London this year, Lol.

            One thing I must say, I have done some fairly extensive research on the whole “primary points theory” for NHL Draft Eligibles and in most cases it really doesn’t add much more to just the plain old NHLe, unless we are talking abut highly skewed totals 80+% primary. Good example is Max Domi was supposed to be far superior to Bo Horvat, but Horvat is likely trending better now. The main reason “primary points” is extremely flawed in my opinion is watching as many WHL games as I do, CHL points keepers and referees always get 1-2 assists mixed up. I know this because I often keep track of boxscores on my own and at least 35-40% of the time the first and second assist are mixed up. Even Stength/PP Points are the same, unless we are talking about 75-80% of Points totals being Even Strength it really doesn’t add much. The best indicator I have found above all else is did their production get better in the last two or three months of the year and into the playoffs (Travis Sanheim taught me this, Andrew Nielsen cemented this theory).

            Lastly Sam Gagner is on pace for 62 Points this year and should easily at least crack 500 Points in his NHL career when it’s all said and done. That’s not a bad result for a 5-10 draft pick and if he wasn’t stuck in Edmonton for years those numbers would have been better. I mean if that is “worse case” for drafting a high producing prospect in a good situation, I’ll take that all day outside of the Top. 5. Haha

    • beloch

      I was vocal about not wanting the flames to pick Puljujarvi at the draft. He had a couple great tournament performances but had done bugger-all in the regular season, and in leagues where it’s very hard to determine a players true quality. His NHLE was, by far, the lowest of any player picked in the top 10. Lots of kids can show up for a few tournaments and then settle back into complacent obscurity, so picking a player entirely based on scouting reports from tournaments is dumb. The NHL needs players who bring an elite edge every day. I said it then, and I’ll repeat it now. Puljujarvi was a risky pick. If the Flames had picked him while Tkachuk was still on the board, I’d have been livid.

      So, it’s entirely possible there’s not much there for the Oilers to ruin. There might be. At this point, Puljujarvi is still a huge question mark. He’s been highly sheltered and has put up 8 points in 22 games. That’s pretty respectable for an 18-year-old. Perhaps Puljujarvi is not entirely atypical for a top ten pick. He’s just not extraordinary. There’s a lot of tough sledding ahead if he remains in the NHL, both for him and his team. The Oilers will have to sacrifice some pretty choice minutes to keep him in the lineup. Still, the Oilers had to be a little bit lucky to do this well! Puljujarvi could just as easily have hit a brick wall upon trying to enter the NHL.

      Tkachuk, on the other hand, had great regular season numbers in the OHL. His record showed that he had no problems playing seventy plus games in a season and showing up to every single one of them. His NHLE was among the very best in the top ten, although some people thought his numbers were inflated by playing with Marner and Dvorak. Instead, while it’s still a bit early to say this, it would appear Dvorak’s numbers were inflated by playing with Marner and Tkachuk!

      I was happy with the Tkachuk pick at the draft, but I did not see this coming. For an 18-year-old to be a leading possession player is simply unheard of. Neither Monahan or even Bennett were this good at eighteen. The Flames have somebody really special here.

      • TurkeyLips

        Agreed, his stock was being determined by such a small sample size, making it amusing that the Finnish GM of CBJ passed on him for another risky pick. Crazy to think Pulj was presented as a comparable in value to Laine at times last year.

      • Primo

        Very informative post indeed! I’m intrigued to read the Oilers may have picked another dud…..very interesting. And for the Canucks to pass up on Chuk simply amazes me…..GFG!

        • Flames Fan in Edmonchuck

          I still can’t understand why they passed…. I understand drafting for need (although I completely disagree with it) but this wasn’t a Doughty type defenceman, this wasn’t even Seth Jones… so why would you give up the best player available for a Dman that MIGHT be a serviceable top pairing guy 3 or 4 or 5 years from now? It boggles the mind! Glad they did!

      • Sobueno

        Re: picking players based on one tourney, see the results of McDonald so far. Has one great tourney, so the Flames pick him with Demko still on the board. Hasn’t looked like a great decision to this point that’s for sure. Definitely agree that looking at the aggregate data available is much more telling. Sort of like how we knew Dougie kicks ass despite his slow start this season due to the previous results he’s had.

        Soon as I saw Tkachuk in Penticton this year I thought he’d for sure make the team given his compete level. I had no idea he’d be killing it to this degree though. Very much a pleasant surprise!

  • Flames Fan in Edmonchuck

    Tkachuk is going to be the type of guy EVERY team hates but wants on their team. And I have a funny feeling he will “go Claude Lemieux” come playoff time and go out of his skull (he seems to get better the tougher things get) honestly at 6th overall I couldn’t be happier…

  • Thatz Nuckin Futz

    You wanna be a tough team to play against? Draft character, don’t focus solely on stats. Guys like T- Chuk, Bennett, Ferland, Hathaway play with an attitude and have an edge. And they have lots of talent. They’ll bleed team colors for a g.m. who showed them that they had faith in their ability. You can’t instill that in people. You either have it or you don’t.

  • kid presentable

    i too wasn’t as happy with the pick… i thought that keller might have been better.

    i am very, very happy to be proven wrong so far. i read he was skilled, and saw some highlights, but i did not think at all that he would be such an intelligent player. his vision, hands, and compete are all world class. add to that package a fiery physical game and agitator qualities…

    already one of my favourite players on the roster

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I wanted Nylander only because I did not think Tkachuk would still be available. I started to follow Tkachuk at the WJC where he was as dominant as Mathews. His skating is going to get better and he is going to dominate.

      Given the family history comparing him to Claude Lemieux would not go over well. Lemieux raised his game in the playoffs and Tkachuk seems similar in that regards but he has so much more to offer.

  • Lucky 13

    First of all Happy Birthday Matt!
    I’m still befuddled he’s only 19. As Don Cherry would put it, “this kids a beauty ”

    He’s the epitome of a possession driver for this team. Who would have thought that his contributions would be so immediate? I didn’t and I was optimistic about him.

    This kid is so teachable. Probably one of his greatest strengths.
    Laine can have his glory as a sniper…his silly gun toting stick wielding holster return routine. Show boating, fist pumping opponents (see recent McDavid antics) isn’t nor will likely ever be Tkachuks trademark… his game alone speaks for itself.

    Wouldn’t want it any other way!

  • Erico

    I think gully deserves a bit of credits here too… Putting him (and keeping him) with “BackFro” is brilliant. What an apprenticeship! He is learning the game the right way, then his talents can get him the rest of the way. Smart (or lucky)… Whatever.