Disclaimer: Matthew Tkachuk’s chances of winning the Calder are probably about as likely as your chances of finding a picture of him with his mouthguard actually in his mouth. In other words, not likely.
He’ll get some consideration, I’m sure. Maybe a particularly strong back half could see him end up a finalist, but aiming to be top five in voting may be more realistic.
Whether or not Tkachuk does get a trophy at the end of the year, though, keep in mind that approaching the 40-game mark of the season – the very one that will determine Tkachuk hitting unrestricted free agent status a year earlier – he is, without a doubt, one of the best rookies in the NHL this season.
I’m going to go so far as to say you could make a case he’s actually the best one.
With 20 points in 33 games, Tkachuk is currently sixth in the rookie scoring race. A couple of the players above him have played more games than he has; most are at about the same.
We can probably assume Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine have two of the nomination spots locked up, both by virtue of being the top two picks of the draft, and by virtue of likely finishing as the top two rookie scorers (barring any collarbone-like incidents occurring). The other three players above Tkachuk – Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Zach Werenski – all have shots, too.
Though with three Leafs possibly in contention, you have to wonder if that helps split the vote at least a little. Tkachuk definitely has the last name recognition, but Columbus’ surge up the standings this year will no doubt help Werenski.
All in all, though, when looking strictly at points, Tkachuk is definitely in the conversation. And then you go just a little deeper and, well…
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Tkachuk isn’t just sixth in points; he’s fourth when it comes to points at even strength. Nylander and Werenski’s numbers are particularly inflated by the powerplay.
Laine may or may not have an unsustainable shooting percentage; maybe he’s just a really accurate shooter, or maybe he’s getting really lucky in his rookie year. It’ll take years for us to find out the answer to that – same as it took a couple with Sean Monahan – but it may be feasible to expect his scoring to go down. Meanwhile, we don’t have that problem with Tkachuk; he’s on pace for 47 points this season, and with a reasonable shooting percentage – via QuantHockey, the average shooting percentage for forwards this season is 10.62% – there isn’t really much reason to expect that to go down.
Really, there’s only one area to strike against Tkachuk here: his ice time is notably lower than the other rookies’. Werenski is in a different situation all together; when it comes to the forward group, though, the Flames are maybe just a little deeper than the Leafs and Jets that they haven’t had to gift Tkachuk with top minutes immediately.
There hasn’t even really been a notable increase in his usage as the season has gone on, though perhaps there should be.
The fancy stuff
Not just out of rookies. Out of everybody.
Okay, with a caveat: out of everybody with over 11 games played, but that isn’t even that big a cutoff point to ask for here.
With a 5v5 CF%rel of +9.99 (Corsica) or +9.96 (NST), Tkachuk has the biggest positive impact on his team out of every single regular in the NHL when he’s on the ice compared to off of it. He turned 19 like two and a half weeks ago. Following up behind him are notably good players like Blake Wheeler and Artemi Panarin. Brad Marchand and Derick Brassard follow, too, and then noted Corsi God Patrice Bergeron.
You have to go all the way down to Sebastian Aho’s +4.33 (Corsica) or +4.46 (NST) to find the next rookie with regular playing time. (Aho is, for the record, seventh in rookie scoring.) Although Kevin Fiala’s numbers may like a word, too, but point is, nobody else in Tkachuk’s rookie class comes even close to touching him when it comes to making a positive impact for his team.
And remember: Tkachuk is doing this with 21.82% offensive zone starts. He’s being put in the worst position out of all of his fellow rookies and he’s absolutely destroying it. For comparison’s sake, Matthews gets 37.56% offensive zone starts, while Laine gets 35.12%. They’re sheltered. Tkachuk isn’t.
He’s doing awfully well in game score, too, averaging .738 a game. That’s tied with Laine, and behind only Matthews (.951) and Werenski (.769).
All in all
I’m sure having such quality two-way linemates as he does is helping out, and maybe the reduced ice time is, too. But considering just how well Tkachuk is doing right now – having stepped right out of junior, only 33 games into his NHL career – both in traditional and fancy stats, maybe the Flames shouldn’t be afraid to start giving him more responsibilities.
He’s probably going to be one of the top players on this team for a long time. He scores, he drives play north, he thrives in difficult circumstances. He’s a total ass to play against, too, and when he takes fewer stupid penalties of his own while continuing to goad the opposition into taking stupid ones against him, well.
There was thought to be some reason for concern considering Tkachuk’s minors history, having always played alongside top players. I’ll cop to this, it was definitely something I was worried about. Was his success a product of him, or was it in part due to his linemates? And it was a good question to ask, if one we couldn’t really determine the answer to.
But at this stage, I think we can feel comfortable that those concerns were unfounded.
Playing alongside fellow top players no doubt helped, but the main reason for Matthew Tkachuk’s success is Matthew Tkachuk.
So here’s to a strong second half for a kid who is definitely one of the best rookies in the NHL this season.