It goes without saying that Matthew Tkachuk is a really good hockey player. At just 20 years of age, he’s one of the Calgary Flames’ most talented, versatile players. And the good news for the Flames is he’s getting smarter with how he plays the game.
The Battle of Alberta last weekend was a polarizing 60 minutes of hockey – in addition to being a wildly entertaining hockey game.
If you reside north of Red Deer, you probably were frustrated with how the Edmonton Oilers let two key points slip through their fingers. If you’re from southern Alberta, you probably walked away fairly impressed with the Tkachuk’s composure in a first period skirmish with Zack Kassian.
Tkachuk’s first shift of the game ended with a collision with Leon Draisaitl (that drew a minor penalty) and a trip to the locker room for a medical evaluation. He returned midway through the period and was challenged to a fight by Kassian off of a faceoff. Tkachuk declined, had his helmet knocked off, and then was the recipient of a few punches to the face.
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With the Flames trailing 1-0 in a game with a key divisional opponent, Tkachuk took zero swings and Kassian was punished with a triple-minor for roughing and a misconduct. For a player that has been criticized at times in his young NHL career for crossing the line and playing on the edge, it was a shocking show of restraint.
The following day, Tkachuk explained his actions in response to a question from Postmedia’s Kristen Anderson regarding toeing the line:
There was a couple opportunities that probably presented themselves yesterday that probably wasn’t smart of me to take part in. I know one instance in particular. I wasn’t necessarily happy with the first play that got me out for the first 10 minutes of the period. As much as maybe I wanted something to come from that when I came back nothing really happened. And then they tried to bait me into some things, but you have to be smart with that stuff. We’ll take the power plays. We’ll go out there and try to score. And winning the game made it a lot better.
Let’s be honest: a year ago, Tkachuk probably would’ve gotten suckered into a scrap. A year ago, he wouldn’t have been able to help himself. He’s a player that relishes riling up the opposition and being engaged in what hockey people call “the guts of the game” – battles in the corners and the front of the net. The qualities that make him such an effective player at drawing penalties and getting under his opponent’s skin are often the same qualities that make Flames management and fans cringe when he goes a little bit too far in the heat of the moment.
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Remember when he was suspended for this incident last season against the Detroit Red Wings? It was a thoroughly stupid thing for Tkachuk to get himself involved in during a blowout loss, but he just couldn’t help himself. It ended up causing the Flames to miss a key player for a game.
This season’s version of Tkachuk is a year older and wiser. But he’s also a better hockey player and a crucial piece for his team’s success – he’s part of their shutdown line and their power play – and he knows it. The thing that was arguably lacking in Tkachuk’s game up until this season was self-awareness, a sense of how potential actions could hurt the team in key situations.
He’s probably going to draw fewer penalties this season than he did in his previous years, but he’s also more likely to be on the ice in key moments for the team when games are on the line. If Tkachuk is going to become a difference-maker at the NHL level, making decisions not to engage in scrums or fisticuffs (as he did against Edmonton) is a critical part of his development.
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He’s a better and smarter player than he was last season, more aware of his importance to his team’s success and better able to pick his spots. It’s that part of his progression that makes him tremendously valuable to the Flames, and will likely make him a very well-compensated young man when his contract expires at the end of the season.