Friends, barring anything troubling happening in the interim, hockey’s coming back in two weeks. Our friends at NHL Network are ramping up their content and among it has been a ranking of the Top 20 wingers in the league. Calgary Flames wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk are on the list.
But NHL Network has Tkachuk ranked ahead of Gaudreau by a few spots.
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) July 16, 2020
Now, is Tkachuk better than Gaudreau? Well, the challenge is this: they’re different players.
Tkachuk, 22, is from St. Louis. His dad was a great player and he was touted as a highly-coveted prospect dating back to his mid-teens. The sixth overall selection in 2016, he went straight to the NHL and has carved out a pretty unique role for himself on the Flames. (We’ll get into that in a moment.)
Gaudreau, 26, is from just outside Philadelphia (on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River). He was a teeny-tiny kid and had to hustle his way into the higher levels of hockey. Even with preposterous offensive numbers in his draft year, he was the 104th selection in 2011 and spent three years embarrassing opposing players at Boston College before going pro in 2014.
These guys have played four seasons on the same team, which is probably the easiest way to explain their difference. We’ll be using Rob Vollman’s Player Usage Charts. The way to read the charts is like this: quality of competition gets tougher as you work your way up, and offensive zone starts increase as you move to the right. (Tough competition and defensive-skewed starts would be top left, easy competition and offensive-skewed starts would be bottom right.) Blue dots indicate good possession numbers, red indicate not good.
The 2016-17 Season
Usage: Tkachuk played primarily with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, forming the fabled 3M Line. The line was used against the other team’s top guns and basically buried in the defensive zone. Despite this, the trio was the best possession group on the team. (They played a ton with Mark Giordano, which helped.) Gaudreau was used with Sean Monahan and Alex Chiasson in an offensive role and received more frequent offensive zone starts.
Performance: Tkachuk had 13 goals and 48 points. Gaudreau had 18 goals and 61 points. Gaudreau was definitely better offensively, and you could make a case that Tkachuk was a better defensive player but had more help from his veteran linemates. Both players had pretty solid possession stats.
The 2017-18 Season
Usage: Very similar song to 2016-17, folks. Tkachuk played with Backlund and Frolik in the D-zone against top dogs. With Micheal Ferland largely replacing Chiasson, Gaudreau and Monahan were given less sheltering (but still lots of O-zone starts). Compared to the season prior, Gaudreau’s line spent more time with Giordano’s defensive pairing.
Performance: Both players had the same number of goals (24). Gaudreau had 84 points to Tkachuk’s 49. Both of them had good possession stats.
Usage: The arrival of Bill Peters led to one significant change, as the 3M Line got increasing O-zone starts but remained a tough minutes shutdown line. (You’ll also notice that the entire usage chart shifted to the right, as the Flames were a tremendous possession team and so every line got more O-zone starts than in prior years.) Tkachuk played with the 3M Line, while Gaudreau got Monahan and newcomer Elias Lindholm (probably the best two-way player he’s ever played with to date.)
Performance: Both guys had great offensive seasons. Tkachuk had 34 goals to Gaudreau’s 36, and had 77 points to Gaudreau’s 99. Once again, both players had pretty good possession numbers.
The 2019-20 Season
Usage: Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Tkachuk in the tough minutes shutdown line with Backlund, this time joined by Andrew Mangiapane. Gaudreau with slightly less tough minutes (and more O-zone starts) with Monahan and Lindholm.
Performance: Tkachuk had 23 goals and 61 points, edging out Gaudreau’s 18 goals and 58 points. Gaudreau’s possession numbers slid a bit, as did Tkachuk’s, and Gaudreau’s line tended to fight it offensively sometimes. Tkachuk’s on-ice shooting percentage was nearly two percent higher than Gaudreau’s – meaning that two percent more pucks went in for Calgary when he was on the ice.
And let’s be honest, a 60 point season being a guy offensively “struggling” is a pretty nice way to struggle.
In other words
Over the past four seasons, Tkachuk has played tough minutes against top offensive players and thrived – albeit with help from some very good two-way linemates. Similarly, Gaudreau has played more offensively skewed minutes (against slightly less tough opposition) with more offensive-minded linemates and thrived.
Tkachuk is younger and arguably has more upside – his demonstrated two-way skills mean coaches likely feel they can use him in more situations – and if you had to pick one player to build around, all things being equal, you’d probably pick the younger guy. But Gaudreau is a dynamic offensive player who has generated a ton of offense – which is why he gets paid the big bucks.
Over the past four seasons, both players have been pretty effective in the different roles they’ve been given.