Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Tkachuk starting to make a case to be Flames’ best player

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.

High-end scorer…

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.

  • Flames First

    I think I can agree with pretty much every single point in this article!! Thanks Ari.

    It is still early, both in career and this season but Chucky is quickly becoming my favorite Flame in pretty much all aspects of the game. Haven’t been able to pick one out of the pile since Iginla.

  • Pete80

    I didn’t realize the zone starts were so different this year. Seems like a major philosophical shift in how to use Tkachuk, was Gulatzan wasting an offensive powerhouse in an overly defensive role? Whatever it is he looks great and I’m liking the new coaching so far. I have more faith in this coaching staff to fix the PP, if they can pull that off its an astronomical upgrade from last year

    • TheDallyLama

      @pete I agree mostly with you. Gulutzan was a d-bag and deserved his firing. But you gotta almost think he did Chucky a favour by all the dzone starts, in my eyes preparing him for the league and maybe unintentionally moulding him to be the great defensive player he is. Now that he has that experience he is showing us the offensive side of his game and it’s brilliant. So yes Gully-dbag but put chucky in position to become better player. This is just IMO tho. Some ppl might disagree with me lol gfg ??

  • Off the wall

    I don’t think you can find a Flames fan that doesn’t GUSH when talking about Tkachuk.

    He’s a natural leader and a great young man. If we had more players with his drive and determination, we would have nothing to ever complain about!

    The ‘A’ looks great on him.
    So happy he’s a Flame..

  • Heeeeeere's Johnny!

    With respect to the title of this article I would say that MT has made a very strong case that he is already this team’s best forward. I accept that there is also an argument that this is still JG but I think I’m becoming convinced.

    I would say he is only the second best player on the team. #1 is still Gio in my mind, but it is only a matter of time until Chucky becomes that, as well as captain of the team.

    • Flames fan since 83

      I agree.
      I wanted to point out that JG to my eye has gotten better this season. It’s not totally surprising because his age would tell you he is now approaching i the apex of his career. Johnny looks physically stronger, a tad faster and quicker, and in small part decision making is better.
      That said. Byng is what, 3 years younger? And Matt is right there with Johnny/Gio but still has minimum of 3 years growth in his game! Very exciting for Flames fans.

    • Albertabeef

      Interesting, Accumulating from 2013-14 up to today Backlund has the 6th most takeaways in the NHL with 329. Brodie is 15th on that list and Monahan is 16 with 293 and 294. Frolik was 49 with 233 while Gio was out of the top 50 with 220. Rookies who started after 2014 are JG with 205, Bennett sitting with 136 in almost half the games as the rest, and MT with 77 so far in his career. But Mony is always close to the top in the takeaway category every year. Interesting what you can find digging through some stats.

      • JoelOttosJock

        Dumb penalties? Hey FLT, if you ever played any physical contact sport, you were either a punter, a goalie or a bench warmer! He doesnt gsme stupid penalties, he takes aggressive, walk the line penalties.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    Even before Smitty became Shaky, the spectre loomed that the Flames would have to go out and get themselves a real goalie as late as next offseason as it was unlikely that Smitty would be resigned beyond a year considering his age and injury history. Of course, the best scenario had the Flames resolving the quandary in house with either Rittich or Gillies stepping up this season to become the reliable starter. The book is still open on Rittich. To my point, if the Flames have to get a good goalie either by free agency or a trade, the cost may well be Tkachuk bucks–money paid to him which should be earmarked to Chucky.

    One truth to be told is that the Flames are not getting Chucky long term for an AAV of less than $7M. Chucky will be the highest paid Flame in history as he will smash to smithereens Tre’s silly Gio Line. Might having to shell out for a starter make that dollar amount impossible unless a big contract is moved? Very possibly. If there is any good news about this it is that Tre has known full well for a long time that he might be in a tight position to have to pay an A-1 goalie and reup Chucky, so one would think he has a plan in place to soften the blow if this scenario does happen.

    If ever a player was in the cat bird’s seat it’s Rittich. The guy is in a spot to not only become an NHL starter and command a healthy salary but to save his boss’ butt in the process. Can Rittich seize this golden opportunity?

    • Kevin R

      Not sure you need to have such a pessimistic view on the cap. Bennett isnt going to cost that much more, I would say a 4.5 mill per for 6 years will get it done. Even if Chucky gets just under 8.0/per we can easily get a 7.0 mill goalie. We lose 4.6mill from Smith, we can easily move out Stone’s 3.5 & Frolik is totally tradable to free up another 4.3. Depending on the young D, Brodie or Hamonic can be moved as well. Next summer will be very interesting.

      • MDG1600

        Of course they can free up space by getting rid of the likes of Frolik or Hamonic or Brodie, but those moves remove depth and likely make the team weaker not better (apart from the goaltending).

      • Cheeky

        4.5 mil per year for Bennett? I desperately want Benny to turn into a top player for us but doubt that happens. Even if he knocked in 20 goals and 50 points this year, he hasn’t proved himself overall to that much money…

    • MDG1600

      I think BT’s was thinking that the team can make it through this year with Smith then the collective of Rittich, Gillies and Parsons will compete for the net. Now it looks like Gillies is a total dumpster fire and Parsons is injured more than he isn’t. No wonder we all love Rittich – he might be the solution to a very big problem. The crazy thing is – it always has felt like management were grooming Gillies to be the heir apparent and Rittich was just insurance and treated like an afterthought.

    • MDG1600

      BMN, do you have any faith that BT and Co. can solve the goaltending puzzle? The organizational track record for identifying and/or developing goalies is terrible.

      • BlueMoonNigel

        If you believe that the Flames having a great goalie is cyclical, then we are at least several years away before the wheel turns Calgary’s goaltending way. Mickey was to the mid 80s to what Kipper was to the mid 00s, so the next great one might be 6 or 7 years away. However, they might be able to find another Reggie Lemelin to serve as a credible stopgap until the real Saver comes along. To answer your question, no I don’t have faith Tre can find one, only bottomless hope that he will.

    • BlueMoonNigel

      That’s a fair worry. Keith loathed owners when he was a player and it was this hatred that made him so active in the NHLPA. The family history is also deeply rooted in labour movements as Keith’s great grandfather suffered terribly because of his support of the fledgling organized labour in America in the early 20th century. These lessons were not lost on Keith and he has undoubtedly passed them on to his boys.

  • Cheeky

    What a great problem to have – trying to figure out his next contract. Johnny is still our top offensive stud, but Chucky is definately turning into our best all around player (barring Gio that is). I still can’t see him breaking the bank but can’t see him signing max years either…