Matthew Tkachuk came as a pleasant surprise to the Calgary Flames in 2016-17. The first pleasant surprise was that he was available at sixth overall in the draft to begin with, the second was that he was ready to be a full-time NHLer, and the third was that he wasn’t just ready to be a full-timer – he was ready to be a top player.
Part of that came from his linemates. Of the 930 5v5 minutes Tkachuk played over the regular season, 780 of them were spent with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. When the team was still trying to find itself, Tkachuk was placed on a line with the team’s best two-way players, and the three pretty much instantly clicked. They were the most consistent group for the Flames over the entire season.
That was 2016-17, though. Next season will be different – so should things stay the same?
Who should Tkachuk play with for the 2017-18 campaign?
Option 1: Keep things the same
Why mess with what works? The 3M line wasn’t just one of the best lines on the Flames – it was one of the best lines in the entire NHL, period. This was a trio that started often in the defensive zone, and were experts at driving the play north – not to mention how each member of the line was a 40+ point player. (Combined, they accumulated 145 points, feeding off of one another.)
The case to keep Tkachuk, Backlund, and Frolik together is simple: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
There’s a case for Tkachuk to play on another line, though. For one thing, Backlund and Frolik are 28 and 29 years old, respectively; they’ve got a decade on Tkachuk. That’s not to say that Tkachuk can’t play with players older than him, but more that it may not be a particularly viable solution in the longer term.
Another reason to break them up? The past two seasons, Backlund and Frolik have proven to be great mentors for rookies. Before they helped ease Tkachuk into the NHL, they helped Sam Bennett. If a rookie winger makes the team – say Hunter Shinkaruk, Morgan Klimchuk, Andrew Mangiapane – then who better for him to get his start with?
Even if that isn’t the case, though, there are other options to play alongside Backlund and Frolik. Aside from the novelty of having an all-Mike line, Micheal Ferland could fit well with them: he’s someone else who doesn’t have elite offensive potential, but can drive play and put up points if given the chance. If he’s brought back, Kris Versteeg could fit in well, too.
Option 2: Reunite with Bennett
The Flames’ line configurations to start the season saw Tkachuk and Troy Brouwer flanking Bennett. Now, that may not be feasible nowadays – we’re well aware of Brouwer’s playing ability at this point – but the idea of pairing Tkachuk with Bennett shouldn’t be dismissed. Not only are they nearly the same age, but they have similar playing styles as well: two high-potential scorers who also play physical and get under the opponent’s skin.
It would fit in with the philosophy of having pairs of forwards. Backlund and Frolik are a pair, and the same goes for Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. If Bennett and Tkachuk can be that third pair, then that’s a very good basis for a top nine.
This is, of course, dependent on Tkachuk and Bennett clicking. We don’t know if they can – but they only played 60 minutes at 5v5 together last season. It’s certainly worth re-exploring, especially as Bennett’s role on this team is still to be determined. Besides, Bennett deserves a higher-caliber linemate, and Tkachuk could be just that guy.
Option 3: Load up the top
Tkachuk can play all three forward positions.
Ferland worked with Gaudreau and Monahan, but he isn’t totally on their level. He’s a good player, but the top line still leaves a little something to be desired.
So if Tkachuk can play the right wing, why not play him alongside the Flames’ top two scorers? He finished fifth in team scoring as a rookie, and that was with defensive zone starts. If he joined the top line, he’d be put in position to score much more often, not to mention he’d have more offensively talented linemates to work with. He’d probably score more – all while maintaining a physical element on the top line.
He’s basically Ferland, but already much better. It would leave some questions for the Flames’ depth, but what’s more important: the top line, or the depth?
(Alternatively, Tkachuk could stay on the left side and Gaudreau could be played on the right; it’s been experimented with a bit at the World Championships.)
There’s really no bad place for Tkachuk in the lineup. No matter where he ends up, he’s probably going to make his linemates better than they already are.
So what it comes down to is a matter of preference. Do you stick with what you know? Do you look to give another young player with elite potential a boost? Or do you put everything into your top line?
Tkachuk is already an outstanding player, so there’s probably no wrong answer.