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Photo Credit: Candice Ward / USA Today Sports

Matthew Tkachuk and Drew Doughty: anatomy of a friendship

Since he entered the National Hockey League as a fresh-faced teenager to begin the 2016-17 season, Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk has developed a reputation as an agitator. His conduct around the net-front area have frequently led to scrums, which have been jokingly referred to by fans and pundits as him “making friends.”

Arguably Tkachuk’s notorious on-ice friendship has involved Los Angeles Kings defender Drew Doughty. Let’s delve into their friendship a bit, shall we?

The 2016-17 Season

The first two games Tkachuk played against the Kings were largely unremarkable. He had a minor penalty and was a combined minus-two.

And then this happened:

Tkachuk received his first NHL suspension – two games – for that elbow smash. He also started to figure out where the line was in terms of agitation and outright dirty play.

The first Flames/Kings game that followed the suspension was a bit chaotic. The hockey itself was awful – the Flames lost 4-1 at home – but it featured both a Tkachuk fight with Brayden McNabb and Jarome Iginla duking it out with Deryk Engelland. Things calmed down for their last meeting of the season, with the Flames grinding out a win and Tkachuk staying out of the box (and drawing a penalty).

In his rookie season, Tkachuk’s penalty differential against the Kings was plus-two… but he also earned himself a two game suspension, which basically washed out his entire positive impact.

2017-18

In his sophomore season, Tkachuk played the Kings three times – he missed their fourth meeting due to a late season injury. He had a largely positive effect, with a plus-one penalty differential, two goals, an assist, and generally figured out how to balance his agitation with being a useful player.

It probably helped that two of Tkachuk’s three outings against the Kings were after a pair of early season suspensions that cost him two games. In those later Kings games media coverage prior to the games revolved around Tkachuk and Doughty’s feud, but only Doughty seemed impacted by it – he had a minus-three penalty differential in games Tkachuk played that season.

2018-19

The first two Flames/Kings games of this season were relatively straightforward and despite the media furor nether Tkachuk or Doughty really got involved in any shenanigans. (The Flames won both games.)

In the third game, in late March, things got a bit wild:

The Flames lost, but Doughty seemed to lose his marbles a bit when it came to Tkachuk. Tkachuk was a healthy scratch for their final visit to Los Angeles of the regular season, and finished the season series with a positive penalty differential (Doughty’s was negative).

A friendship defined

In his rookie season, Tkachuk seemed to struggle to figure out where the line was between smart agitation and being a detriment to his team. His skirmish in 2017 with Doughty was, in many ways, the beginning of a very quick maturation process for him. He was suspended three times in the 2017 calendar year, missing four games overall. Since then? Tkachuk has seemed to find his lane in the NHL.

Remember the heated first Battle of Alberta meeting last November? Before the Doughty incident (and the lessons he learned), it seems likely that Tkachuk would’ve been sucked into the fray with Zack Kassian in that game. Instead, Kassian took a triple minor for the skirmish – a rare penalty – and the Flames grabbed hold of momentum through their power play, and won that game. That win helped turn the tide in a very uneven start to the 2018-19 season and helped roll the Flames towards their best season in 30 years.

Tkachuk is many things, but he is not a dumb man. Tkachuk knows exactly what he’s doing. Looking at the recent past, engaging in the narrative of the feud has seemingly had no impact on Tkachuk (or the Flames) but really has riled up Doughty. In the clip from After Hours, Tkachuk’s smile tells you everything you need to know.

The Flames probably wouldn’t have the Tkachuk that they have now without Doughty. For that reason, in a career-long friendship tour, Doughty may be Tkachuk’s very best friend.