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Don’t wait to sign Matthew Tkachuk

While Mikael Backlund’s potential extension seems to be dominating most of the contract conversation right now, there’s another pending deal that should be registering just as important. Matthew Tkachuk is eligible to sign his second NHL contract on July 1 and, for numerous reasons, there’s no reason for things to drag on much longer than that.

If you remember, the Flames took their sweet time signing Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to contract extensions in the summer of 2016, to the extent the former missed all of training camp as a result. It makes no sense to go down the same road with Tkachuk, for the reasons I’m about to lay out.

Measurables

On their own, Tkachuk’s first two NHL seasons have provided us with more than enough evidence to justify a long-term contract extension. In his rookie and sophomore seasons, Tkachuk has been one of Calgary’s most important and effective players at both ends of the ice, and his five-on-five outputs tell that story emphatically (scoring rates via Corsica).

Season CF% Rank OZS% G60 Rank P60 Rank
2016-17 56.0 1st 35.0 0.58 7th 2.06 1st
2017-18 57.1 3rd 45.0 0.98 3rd 1.72 4th
Overall 56.4 2nd 39.6 0.76 5th 1.91 3rd

So, not only is Tkachuk one of the team’s most effective and reliable possession players, he’s also one of the most productive. Dating back to the beginning of last season, only Gaudreau and Monahan have higher even strength scoring rates than Tkachuk’s 1.91. He’s done that despite playing some of the most difficult forward minutes in the NHL.

Tkachuk’s ability to take on the toughest matchups while spending far more time in the offensive end is impressive enough, and rather rare. The last time I can remember a young forward excelling in similar situations is Brad Marchand’s rookie campaign with the Bruins. But it’s the fact Tkachuk has also been extremely productive that truly sets him apart.

Even scarier is how his offensive game is still evolving, and rapidly so. Tkachuk has already eclipsed career totals in goals this season and seeing him score 30 on an annual basis is a very realistic proposition. For instance, we haven’t seen a Flames player as skilled at close-in deflections as Tkachuk in years.

Furthermore, as Tkachuk has gotten stronger, he’s gotten better at taking the puck to high danger areas with power. As such, he’s doing so with more frequency, which is something that will likely only improve in the next few years. Tkachuk’s strength, ability, and skill in tight are elements that should make him one of the league’s most dominant power forwards for a long time.

The dude is also as smart as they come. Tkachuk’s hockey IQ is at an elite level, and it shows in so many subtle, and hard to measure, ways. One statistic we can track, though, is individual penalties drawn, as recorded by Corsica. Since entering the league last season, no one has drawn more minors than Tkachuk.

Rank Player PEND
1 Matthew Tkachuk 84
2 Connor McDavid 77
3 Tom Wilson 77
4 Nikolaj Ehlers 60

Sure, some of those penalties drawn have come as a result of Tkachuk getting under an opposing player’s skin, which is a lot of fun to watch. But far more have been because Tkachuk reads and anticipates so well he’s almost always in the right position.

Constantly being “in front of the puck” typically has the inverse effect of making opposition players chase, thus putting them out of position. That’s why they take penalties and that’s why it’s no fluke Tkachuk has drawn as many as he has.

Leverage

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Usually a pending restricted free agent doesn’t have a ton of leverage in contract negotiations. In so many ways, the team holds the hammer because they retain control regardless if a contract is agreed upon or not. As such, it’s far easier for a general manager to sit back and wait things out. Tkachuk does have one piece of leverage, though, and GM Brad Treliving needs to take it into consideration.

As it stands right now, Tkachuk is showing no signs of plateauing or regressing. All he’s done is rapidly get better since entering the league, and he’s still just 20 years old (look how long it took for me to mention his age; be impressed). You’re telling me he won’t be even better in year three?

So let’s follow that train of thought for a second and assume Tkachuk is better in 2018-19, which just happens to be the final year of his entry-level deal. If that’s the case, his camp will have even more ammunition in pushing for a hefty cap number. I’m pretty confident saying Tkachuk will have more leverage next summer than he will this summer.

The internal cap

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Calgary’s two highest paid players are Mark Giordano and Gaudreau, who both carry $6.75 million cap hits until the end of the 2021-22 season. I don’t think there’s any coincidence the latter’s average annual value didn’t eclipse the former’s.

Whether you agree with the concept of an “internal cap” or not, there certainly seems to be one for the Flames. If indeed Calgary wants Giordano’s cap hit to serve as the invisible ceiling, then they’d have a pretty good chance of getting Tkachuk’s cap number under that mark this summer.

However, if Tkachuk were to take another massive step or three next season, that becomes slightly more difficult. The NHL’s salary cap keeps going up, which escalates contracts in step. Tkachuk is as integral to success for the Flames as either Monahan or Gaudreau, so to think their deals won’t be part of contract negotiations is crazy.

If Calgary truly wants to stay accountable to an internal cap, their best bet is to sign Tkachuk with as few NHL games under his belt as possible.

Conclusion

If you’re the Flames, why wouldn’t you get something done with Tkachuk as soon humanly possible? If this team is going to ascend to the heights they’d like, it’s going to be with Tkachuk as a major driving force, so a bridge contract is off the table. For me, this guy is jousting with Gaudreau at the very top of my untouchable list, so signing him for as long as possible is the best play.

I’m not saying Calgary should just bow to his every demand, but I do think they have to do what it takes to get Tkachuk locked up on a max eight-year term. Yeah, that might mean his cap hit would have to be higher than it would be on, say, a six-year deal, but it sure seems worth it to me.

The Flames are going to be in a continual state of careful cap management for the foreseeable future, so cost certainty and damage limitation is crucial. An eight-year deal certainly covers the cost certainty part, while signing Tkachuk in an expeditious fashion definitely helps limit cap damage. If signing him ASAP saves the team even $500,000 per season, it’s a win.

So, let’s summarize: Tkachuk is a core player, already one of the best all around wingers in the league, and seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential. All of that leads me to ask the all important question again: why would they wait to sign him long term?