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Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The importance of Matthew Tkachuk

If Matthew Tkachuk isn’t the most important member of the Calgary Flames right now, we won’t have to wait too long for that to be the case. About a month shy of his 20th birthday, Tkachuk has already cemented himself as one of the team’s most crucial pieces and doesn’t even have 100 NHL games to his name. The fact is, the Flames are a different team without Tkachuk in the lineup, and it’s easy to see why.

On the ice

We all knew Tkachuk was a good player heading into the 2016 NHL Draft. That’s why so many fans were thrilled when the draft order shook out the way it did, allowing Tkachuk to fall to Calgary at number six. What we didn’t know was how much of an immediate impact Tkachuk would make at the NHL level. It didn’t take us long to find out.

You don’t see a lot of teenagers do what Tkachuk has done in his short professional career. Placed on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik early in his rookie season, Tkachuk was thrown into a difficult role almost right away.

For virtually his entire first year, Tkachuk was buried with defensive zone starts and went head-to-head with the very best the opposition had to offer. To see him thrive the way he has is not something very many people saw coming, even for a sixth overall selection. More than anything else, you just don’t see a lot of rookies excel in the situations Tkachuk has faced early in his career.

Tkachuk has been able to succeed in some of the NHL’s most difficult situations due to his high end intelligence. The dude just thinks the game better than a lot of players, regardless of age, and certainly at a higher level than the vast majority of rookies and sophomores. Even with established two-way threats like Backlund and Frolik helping him along, Tkachuk’s work thus far is still extremely impressive.

Even more notable, though, is the fact Tkachuk is doing more than just surviving. For a lot of NHL newcomers, coming away even would be deemed a success in a top shutdown role. Tkachuk, on the other hand, has taken it a step further and has produced at an impressive rate.

With 13 goals and 48 points in 76 games, Tkachuk put up solid numbers in his rookie season, even if you take the situational context out of the equation. Through 11 games of this season, he’s picked up right where he left off with three goals and eight points. Taking a deeper look at Tkachuk’s productivity paints an even better picture.

The five-on-five scoring rates above, via Corsica, are tough to argue with. Since joining the Flames, Tkachuk has been one of the team’s top even strength performers and is showing no signs of slowing down in that regard.

Finally, there’s the stuff that scoring rates and possession metrics don’t show but we all see. Tkachuk is an absolute menace to play against and is rapidly making more and more enemies around the league. Don’t confuse that for a bad thing, either. Tkachuk’s ability to agitate and infuriate helps the team in a big way, as evidenced by the amount of penalties he’s drawn since turning pro (penalty data courtesy Corsica).

When looking at the “rank” columns this time around, we’re not talking about on the team, we’re talking across the NHL. Only Connor McDavid drew more penalties than Tkachuk did last season, while his career total of 50 is the most since the start of the 2016-17 campaign. Sure, the 40 penalties taken is a bit high, but that number will likely come down in time.

While Tkachuk continues to learn how to walk the NHL line, he’ll also receive more benefit of the doubt from officials as he becomes more established as a player. Even if that doesn’t happen, Tkachuk still draws more penalties than he takes, which remains an asset.

Off the ice

I know we sometimes cringe at things that can’t be measured in numbers, but in Tkachuk’s case, it needs to be mentioned. The guy burns to win and it’s the most important thing to him. Having been around him the last year and a bit, it’s clear as day to see: Tkachuk hates to lose more than he loves to win. Many have wondered whether that trait exists enough in Calgary’s makeup.

I don’t think we’re that far off from seeing Tkachuk wear a letter on this team, either. Sure, the guy is rapidly becoming one of the more reviled players around the NHL, but you can’t deny the captain-like traits he possesses.

Tkachuk works as hard as anyone, he’ll go through a wall for a teammate, he doesn’t bark at officials after penalty calls, and he owns up to his mistakes. The guy gets what leading by example is all about, and I thought him taking full responsibility for Calgary’s loss to Carolina earlier this month was a perfect example of just that. Whenever Mark Giordano’s time with the Flames comes to an end, I think Tkachuk needs to be in the conversation as the team’s next captain.

The future

Right now, Tkachuk has found a great home on the 3M Line with Backlund and Frolik, and there is zero reason to split them apart. However, down the road I don’t think it’s crazy to think he might be taken off that line and used elsewhere.

Because Tkachuk is as skilled as he is, a spot on the team’s “top line” with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau is quite intriguing. From an offensive perspective, Tkachuk would have no problem keeping up with Calgary’s dynamic duo. It’s his ability defensively, though, that could really rub off in a positive way on Monahan and Gaudreau.

So what is Tkachuk’s ceiling? From a pure points perspective, he’s on pace for about 60 points this season as it stands right now. I think it’s very realistic to see Tkachuk in the 60-70 point range on a perennial basis for years to come, but I also don’t want to put limits on him. We already know what he can do from a two-way perspective, but Tkachuk’s offensive peaks are still being explored.

If I were making a list of “untouchable” players on the Flames right now, I know who is at the top of my list. I’m not saying players like Gaudreau, Monahan, Backlund, and Dougie Hamilton aren’t crucial to this team’s future, because, well, of course they are. But knowing all of what the Matthew Tkachuk package consists of, I don’t think we’re far off from him being this team’s most important player. We might already be there now.