Matthew Tkachuk is 98 games and parts of two seasons into his NHL career, and he’s already earned a reputation as one of the league’s premier pests.
It’s not an easy role. Aside from the physical rigours and consistently negative spotlight, it’s difficult to be effective and frustrate the opposition without crossing the line occasionally one’s self.
Tkachuk, who turns 20 years old in two weeks’ time, is still learning how to walk that fine line.
Currently, Tkachuk leads the Flames in penalty minutes, though much of that (15 penalty minutes, to be exact) can be attributed to his role in instigating a brawl with Detroit Red Wings forward Luke Witkowski in an 8-2 loss on Nov. 15.
For his part in that brawl, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety suspended Tkachuk, fairly or otherwise, for one game, which gives him two suspensions already. Put another way, one for each season with time to spare.
If Tkachuk’s current pace continues, he’ll finish this season with as many penalty minutes (105) as last.
There are signs, though, that Tkachuk is indeed learning. If we don’t account for the 15 minutes (I’m open to the argument that we shouldn’t, but hear me out) Tkachuk accrued in that Red Wings game, he’s actually on pace to more than halve his penalty minute output to a much more manageable 52 minutes.
It’s not a coincidence or even a simple matter of cherrypicking data. Tkachuk’s just been a far more disciplined player. He’s on pace to take six fewer penalties this season based on the nine infractions thus far. If we isolate minor penalties, he’s on pace for eight fewer trips to the sin bin.
Best of all, Tkachuk isn’t any less of a thorn in the opposition’s side. If the four-game suspension that Gabriel Landeskog just earned for his crosscheck to the head of Tkachuk in the Flames’ 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday is any indication, he’s every bit as irritating this season as his rookie campaign.
Um, Gabriel Landeskog should probably get a call from the DOPS for this cross check pic.twitter.com/c7evKANOF5
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 26, 2017
If Tkachuk keeps this up, he’ll draw about 48 minor penalties this season compared to the 36 he drew last year. That’s a difference of 12 penalties.
Even without the entirety of those extra 12 penalties, though, Tkachuk is arguably the league’s best pest. Since joining the NHL last season, Tkachuk’s already drawn 49 penalties. The next best skater is Connor McDavid, who’s drawn three fewer in that same span.
That rate of agitation is even more impressive when we frame it in an hourly perspective. If we remove all face-punchers (players with five or more fighting majors drawn/taken) and players with fewer than 500 minutes of even strength ice time from the last two years’ data set, the 2.51 penalties Tkachuk is drawing on an hourly basis is almost half an extra penalty per hour over the next most efficient skater, Chicago Blackhawks winger Ryan Hartman.
Over the course of the entire Behind the Net era (from the 2007-08 season to the present), there are fewer than 20 players to best that rate.
Intuitively, we know that a penalty drawn is value added. At the very least, it puts the opposition down a man and disrupts their rhythm for two minutes or less. If we want to make assumptions based on how often the Flames convert on their power play opportunities, we can safely estimate that Tkachuk’s already added roughly three goals just based on the penalties he’s drawn thus far. If this rate continues, that numbers skyrockets to about 10.5 goals.
I’ve heard the number 2.5 goals cited as what a player has to contribute individually for a win in hockey. That puts Tkachuk on pace to add about four wins just by virtue of pissing people off.
Based on the research TSN’s Travis Yost conducted in January of 2015 using a similar methodology, we can safely assume that puts Tkachuk in elite company as far as this often uncited but unique and valuable skill translates to goals for.
At some point, there either have been or will be calls for Tkachuk to walk it back in spite of indisputable evidence to suggest he’s already done just that. Best of all, he’s done just that without it coming at the expense of one of his best skills as a shift disturber.
If it wasn’t enough that Tkachuk could produce offence at a first line clip in his rookie season and provide sterling two-way value in the light of underlying goal- and shot-based metrics, he’s also one of the league’s foremost nuisances. That’s to his credit. Don’t change a thing, Matthew. You’re perfect, for the Flames, just the way you are.