Think back to the 2016 NHL Draft. The Flames, coming off of a very disappointing season, were in line to pick sixth overall. Though there were rumours that the pick may be traded for Ben Bishop, they ultimately ended up keeping it, making Matthew Tkachuk one of their highest picks in franchise history.
It’s worked out pretty well so far.
Recall that, in 2016, the Flames were extremely close to winning the draft lottery. Finishing with the fifth worst record in the league gave them a pretty good chance, but it was the team with the sixth worst record – the Jets – that ended up winning the second overall pick. They were better than the Flames by a single overtime win, and for that, got Patrik Laine.
And Laine would have been a great pick. The high-scoring right winger would have been the immediate solution for who to fill out Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan’s line; his 143 points in 169 games alongside those two would have been something to see.
But it wasn’t to be, and instead, the Flames got the next best guy: a high scorer with an incredibly well-rounded game, even when he was entering the league as just a teenager.
Think back on Tkachuk’s first nine NHL games: he had a goal and three assists, and there was some question as to whether he’d stay on the Flames full time or not. Sure, he had NHL size, and the offence was starting to come, but it’s a big decision to commit to a player coming out of junior staying in the big leagues, no matter his draft pedigree.
The Flames chose to keep him up. In his 10th game, he scored two goals, validating the Flames’ decision immediately. It’s been nothing but up from there.
Tkachuk scored 107 points in 57 games for the London Knights during his one and only OHL season. He was only third on his team in scoring, though; linemates Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner had 121 and 116 points, respectively. So there was maybe some question: how much of his numbers were his, and how much were they a product of his linemates?
It didn’t take him long to alleviate any concerns, however. By mid-December in his rookie season, Tkachuk had found his stride, rattling off a nine-game point streak to really highlight his eventual 13-goal, 48-point rookie season in 76 games. He finished fifth in team scoring, and pro-rated to a full 82-game season, he would have cracked the 50-point mark at 52. Thirteen of his points came on the powerplay, and he was only ninth in team ice time with the man advantage.
Tkachuk built on that as a sophomore, with 24 goals and 40 points in 68 games: he finished third in team scoring, and pro-rated to 82 games, he’d have had a 59-point year. Seventeen of his points came on the powerplay this time, as he’d jumped up to fifth in powerplay ice time.
… in unfavourable circumstances
It’s one thing to enter the NHL with a couple of almost 50-point seasons, but if you draw on the earlier mention of Laine, he already has 64- and 70-point seasons under his belt. He did it, though, with getting zone start ratios in the 54-57% range. In other words, he was put in a position to succeed: as he should have been, because that’s what you do with incredibly dynamic offensive players.
Tkachuk, however, has yet to get that luxury. In 2016-17, he had an abysmal zone start ratio of 35.19%: the second worst out of all regulars on the team. In 2017-18, that jumped up to 45.17%: still the third worst among all regulars on the team. Mikael Backlund, who has been Tkachuk’s centre for basically his entire NHL career, has also had abysmal zone starts; his, however, have been just a little better than Tkachuk’s, all while scoring at similar rates with Tkachuk being nearly a decade younger.
And he’s been driving possession the entire time, as well: a 55.89% 5v5 CF as a rookie, the highest on the team. He was at 57.2% as a sophomore, third highest, behind the Flames’ top two defencemen.
If you can get 50 points and consistently drive offence out of a player getting the toughest zone starts on the team, you’re probably in a good spot with him. If he’s doing that in his first two seasons, well, there’s no telling how high he’ll go.
Could this be the breakout year?
In his first 16 games in 2016-17, Tkachuk had seven points. In 2017-18, he had 11. So far this season, he has 19 – tied with Johnny Gaudreau as the team’s leading scorer, on one of the NHL’s highest scoring teams.
Gaudreau is a unique scoring talent in his own right. His worst season saw him score 61 points. He’s been the team leader in scoring since he was a sophomore. Like Laine, though, he tends to be sheltered in regards to zone starts – because that’s his role – and it gives him an edge in being able to score.
So to see that Tkachuk has already started nipping on Gaudreau’s scoring heels just three years into his career is something else. With six points on the powerplay so far, he’s tied for third most points on the Flames on the man advantage, despite sitting fifth in ice time (Gaudreau is first in ice time, second in points).
His 60.14% 5v5 CF so far is third on the Flames, behind Backlund and Austin Czarnik. The only truly curious mark on his (and Gaudreau’s) stats so far are their zone start ratios: 57.32% for Tkachuk, fourth highest on the team; 56.52% for Gaudreau, sixth highest.
That could be part of the reason Tkachuk has suddenly started challenging for the team lead in scoring. Whatever the cause, though, this early scoring race should be welcomed: in his first two seasons, Tkachuk has already proven he can put up points in a defensive role. He’s proven he can play well in a defensive role, period. Now, just starting his third year, he’s starting to show he can be a top scorer when put in the position to do just that.
If he can keep it up while getting more defensive zone starts, watch out.
All of that is without going into his penchant for drawing penalties (he’s only drawn three so far this season, but led the league through his first two years with 89), his tendency to make his linemates better when they’re on the ice together, and the things one can’t measure, such as his aggressive style of play, his creativity on the ice, and the sheer tenacity he exhibits more often than not that makes him one of the most entertaining players in the NHL to watch.
It’s early yet, but Tkachuk just keeps getting better and better. He stepped into the highest level of hockey already a well-rounded elite player. Who knows just what his ceiling truly is – but it’s working out probably even better than the Flames could have imagined so far.