Thursday, January 12, 2017

Calder Darkhorse: Time to Wake up and Recognize Tkachuk's Impactful Rookie Season

For Matthew Tkachuk, he finds himself sandwiched in the NHL's top five by some elite company.

The two guys ahead of him, Pittsburgh's Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, are earning a salary of $9 and $9.5 million respectively to help set-up Sidney Crosby. The two guys behind him are league-leading scorer Connor McDavid and Washington centre Nicklas Backstrom, who brings in a cool $7 million for often riding shotgun with Alex Ovechkin.

This group I'm referring to are the NHL's top five playmakers over the past two-and-a-half months.

NHL - Assists Per 60 Minutes (since Oct. 25):

1. Phil Kessel PIT, 34 gm, 2.68
2. Evgeni Malkin PIT, 34 gm, 2.31
3. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 35 gm, 2.22
4. Connor McDavid EDM, 37 gm, 2.21
5. Nicklas Backstrom WSH, 36 gm, 2.17

While Oct. 25, a night that came 13 days into the regular season, may appear to be a pretty random pull, it's actually not.

That evening in St. Louis, against the team his dad Keith played for from 2001 through 2010, was the first game Tkachuk was inserted onto a line with Mikael Backlund and Michel Frolik.

Prior to that, the 18-year-old had been a healthy scratch for two games, a curious decision by Glen Gulutzan that had raised some eyebrows. The coach defended it by calling it part of the organization's development plan for Tkachuk, who had dressed for each of the season's first five games and averaged 11:55 in ice time. His one point up until then had been a goal.

Watching the game from a different vantage point certainly worked.

Since his brief press box hiatus, he has been a fixture on that line and they've been the club's No. 1 line without question.

Calgary Flames - Even-Strength Scoring (since Oct. 25)

1. Matthew Tkachuk, 5-14-19
T2. Michael Frolik, 5-11-16
T2. Dougie Hamilton, 7-9-16
T4. Mikael Backlund, 7-7-14
T4. Johnny Gaudreau, 7-7-14
6. Sam Bennett, 7-6-13
7. Matt Stajan, 4-8-12
8. Sean Monahan, 4-7-11
9. Alex Chiasson, 5-5-10
T10. TJ Brodie, 1-7-8
T10. Kris Versteeg, 2-6-8

You could also argue they've been one of the best and most consistent trios in the entire NHL.

Wake up PHWA Voters

It was a few minutes past midnight Eastern time on Wednesday night when Dougie Hamilton fired in the game-winner late in the third period of a huge 3-2 victory over Pacific Division-leading San Jose.

With Tkachuk in his usual parking stall just outside the top of the goal crease, Hamilton's shot eluded goaltender Aaron Dell.

As the guy providing the screen, Tkachuk was instrumental on the goal that earned Calgary two points against last year's Stanley Cup finalists. But you would never have known it if you woke up Thursday morning and skimmed the game summary.

Officially, Hamilton from Mark Giordano and Backlund is how the goal went down. Unofficially, Tkachuk was key in making that goal happen, just like he played an integral role on the team's first goal by Frolik that he earned an assist on, as well as the pivotal Flames second goal in the final minute of the second period that tied it, which he scored himself on a deflection.

The late-night heroics aren't new either.

It was around 12:30 a.m. Eastern on Saturday night when Tkachuk's outstanding pass sprung Frolik on a breakaway, the goal with 1:50 left in the third securing a 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

That set-up extended Tkachuk's point streak at the time to nine games, longest by a rookie this season and longest in club history since Joe Nieuwendyk's 14-game point spree in 1987-88.

But out East where a majority of the Professional Hockey Writers Association voters reside for the NHL awards, is anyone staying awake long enough to take notice of what Tkachuk is doing? You sure hope so. For those that are, the eyes are surely wide open as just watching him play is like a jolt of caffeine.

Don't Sleep on Tkachuk

While much ballyhooed Toronto star Auston Matthews and Winnipeg phenom Patrik Laine have dominated Calder discussions so far and for good reason, remember that there are three finalists for every award and that includes rookie of the year. While I agree those other two guys should be shoe-ins -- and one of them is most likely to win it, Tkachuk is someone not nearly enough people outside Calgary are talking about. At this point, he is worthy of a podium finish.

Mitch Marner from the Leafs is naturally getting a lot of love. So is his Toronto teammate William Nylander. Columbus defenceman Zach Werenski has been a huge part of the Blue Jackets stunning first half success, Detroit winger Anthony Mantha has been piling up points lately and in net, you have the stellar play from Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray.

But don't sleep on Tkachuk and Eastern voters, I mean that literally. Don't forget about the kid stuck out West in the mountain time zone that has been tremendous.

While it shouldn't, if it does come down to who has the most points, the NHL version of a popularity contest, Tkachuk is at least slowly climbing up that ladder too. On the season, Tkachuk (8-19-27) ranks fourth in rookie scoring behind Laine (21-16-37), Matthews (21-14-35) and Marner (10-22-32). More recently, he's been right there with them, point-for-point.

NHL - Rookie Scoring (since Dec. 1):

1. Patrik Laine WPG, 17 gm, 8-10-18
T2. Auston Matthews TOR, 16 gm, 11-6-17
T2. Matthew Tkachuk, CGY, 18 gm, 2-15-17
4. Anthony Mantha DET, 18 gm, 8-6-14
T5. Ryan Hartman CHI, 20 gm, 5-8-13
T5. Mitch Marner TOR, 16 gm, 3-10-13

Not reflected above but not to be glossed over is Tkachuk is averaging three minutes less in playing time compared to Matthews and nearly four minutes less than Laine.

Go back once again to when Tkachuk joined the Backlund-Frolik line and factor in ice time and you get the same names but in a different and intriguing order.

NHL - Rookie Points Per 60 Minutes (since Oct. 25):

1. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 35 gm, 3.03
2. Mitch Marner TOR, 34 gm, 2.97
3. Patrik Laine WPG, 37 gm, 2.88
4. Auston Matthews TOR, 34 gm, 2.65
5. Anthony Mantha DET, 26 gm, 2.56

Of course, here we are halfway through the article and two of the most compelling aspects of Tkachuk's overall game have yet to be tagged and entered into the courtroom as evidence.

Defensively Responsible

First, you have the fact that Tkachuk is putting up all these assists and points while playing left wing on the Flames No. 1 shutdown line.

Sure, the offence has come in spades this year for the line -- Backlund leads the team (12-17-29), Tkachuk (8-19-27) is tied with Johnny Gaudreau (10-17-27) for second, and Frolik (11-14-25) is tied with Dougie Hamilton (7-18-25) for fourth -- but that's not even their primary modus operandi.

This is a line that Gulutzan continually sticks on the ice against other team's top lines. Their first priority is making sure the line they're up against does not score. The most difficult line match-ups on most nights goes to these three guys. While Backlund and Frolik are veterans who are used to that role, that's a boatload of responsibility to heap on the shoulders of a kid that just turned 19 in December, yet he's handled it remarkably well.

Advanced stats reveals that despite the tough assignments, that line is carrying the play when they're on the ice. Known officially by the NHL as SAT% (shot attempt percentage), but better known by terms like Corsi and possession, this number is a ratio that reflects the volume of shot attempts by a team while a player is on the ice at 5-on-5, compared to shot attempts against.

NHL - SAT% (since start of the season)

1. Patrice Bergeron BOS, 62.01, 58.35 ZS%
2. Brad Marchand BOS, 61.14, 57.21 ZS%
3. Colin Miller BOS, 59.78, 62.72 ZS%
4. Torey Krug BOS, 59.30, 59.66 ZS%
5. David Pastrnak BOS, 59.08, 55.94 ZS%
6. Anze Kopitar LA, 58.72, 50.65 ZS%
7. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 57.44, 34.59 ZS%
8. Lars Eller WSH, 57.37, 55.98 ZS%
9. Aleksander Barkov FLA, 57.37, 54.58 ZS%
10. Jordan Staal CAR, 57.31, 47.37 ZS%

The additional number that really pops for Tkachuk is the zone start percentage (ZS%). With everyone on this list other than Tkachuk at No. 7 and Jordan Staal at No. 10, more often than not and sometimes way more often, those players come on the ice at 5-on-5 when there's a face-off in the offensive zone.

For Tkachuk, it's completely the opposite.

On the season, Tkachuk has been on the ice at 5-on-5 for 110 faceoffs in the offensive zone. That's an average of 2.5 per game. Meanwhile, he's been on the ice for faceoffs in the defensive zone 208 times or nearly twice as often.

It's an indication that Gulutzan trusts him and his line more than anyone else to get the team out of a jam.

One of the NHL's Best Antagonizers

Another attribute of his game is his ability to get under the skin of the opponent.

In a statistic that speaks volumes and is testament to Gulutzan's favourite compliment that he pays to Tkachuk regularly in that he's "always in the fabric of the game", Tkachuk (76) ranks third in the league in penalty minutes behind Dallas agitator Antoine Roussel (87) and Toronto pest Matt Martin (77). That said, he's drawn more penalties than he's taken.

Minor Penalties Taken Per 60 (min of 20 games):

1 Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 2.82
2. Chris Thorburn WPG, 2.46
3. Ryan Garbutt ANA, 2.43
4. Chris Neil OTT, 2.42
5. Brett Connolly WSH, 2.27

Minor Penalties Drawn Per 60 (min of 20 games):

1. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 2.93
2. Garnet Hathaway CGY, 2.71
3. Matt Martin TOR, 2.46
4. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 2.22
5. William Carrier BUF, 2.04

For lack of a better description, this guy is a shit disturber in the truest sense. He is always around the front of the net and wreaking havoc. A late shove, a little whack in the leg, some barking, stealing Brent Burns' stick, he excels at getting the opposition defenders off their game and he is going to be universally hated around the league in no time.

A guy you love to have on your team but hate to play against, name the last time the Flames had a guy that fit that description.

It's been a void missing for decades and it's why the Flames were delighted to see the stars align and be able to land Tkachuk at No. 6 in the NHL Draft last June.

Final Word

Getting to watch him on a nightly basis, there is a great appreciation in Calgary of the many elements of Tkachuk's game. With hockey 'in his blood', having grown up around it with his Dad, he is a quick study that has earned everything he's gotten this year. He continues to be one of the team's top players.

His playmaking has impressed. Whether it's passing plays leading up to a goal or puck possession that turns into a shot on goal that turns into a rebound that turns into a goal, he's been a huge part of the offence.

His shot isn't bad either as Arizona goaltender Mike Smith can attest. You may remember the bullet he put under the crossbar from a sharp angle late in the third to beat the Coyotes on Nov. 16.

His beyond-his-years hockey IQ, defensive smarts and puck management earned him a spot on Calgary's shutdown line and has kept him there.

His ability to piss everybody off yet more often than not, put his team on the power play, is a skill you can't teach.

Has he been boosted by the tremendous seasons being enjoyed by Backlund and Frolik? Certainly. But don't discount how much Tkachuk has helped their game also. It's a two-way street.

In two weeks, the Flames make their way out East for stops in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Heads up voters, with Calder votes due in a couple months, this is a guy to watch and in person if you have the chance. Don't forget about him after he leaves town either. Heck, a few late nights watching the Pacific Division won't kill you. You can always sleep-in during the summer.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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      1. Great blog as usual Darren.

        What is your take on re-signing Backland? At the point you kind of have to. What kind of money and term will it take? Cheers!

        1. My assumption has always been that he would price himself out of Calgary for when he becomes a UFA in the summer of 2018. But you do have to wonder now if they can find a way to keep him. Given how hard he's worked to get to this point and with him in his prime, you would expect to be looking for lots of term and money and while fair, that will be the issue. How much? How long? I haven't given that much thought but given what guys like Gaudreau and Monahan got with RFA years left still, keeping Backlund off the open market may take a similar haul. It's a great question and will make for a great story to write and debate to have in the summer. Thanks for your kind feedback on the site.

      2. That one of the most-sheltered rookies in the league in the 14/15 season (Aaron Ekblad) managed to beat out one of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Stone, Filip Forsberg or John Klingberg tells me Matthew Tkachuk doesn't have much hope, even though he deserves the recognition of being one of the best this season.

        If the (eastern) media was bound and intent on handing a rookie defenseman the Calder in 2014/15, John Klingberg was better than Aaron Ekblad in almost every way. It's been quite obvious this season that Ekblad rode Brian Campbell's coattails for three years.

        1. With other very worthy candidates out East including a D in Werenski that would provide some diversity in the voting, I agree it will be tough for him to crack the top three and it will also be interesting to see if Tkachuk can keep up the same pace. Mind you, all rookies face that question at the halfway point.

      3. WOW! I knew Tkachuk has been playing well for the Flames but you opened up my eyes as to how good he really has become! This article should be published in the Toronto Globe!

        1. Sounds like you're from out East where naturally there are always going to be some hidden secrets out West, the by-product of the time zones for one, but also the plethora of rookie talent on a team like the Leafs where one can't take away what Marner and Nylander are doing, just because they're on the same team as Matthews. Bottom line is it's quite a rookie class this year, which is certainly good for the NHL.

      4. All things considered, and I agree he should be talked about, he is simply not even close to Laine and Matthews in talent and it is very apparent on the ice. With Laine set to miss time Tkachuk should have a legit shot at sneaking up on Werenski and Matthews but I think he has a HUGE hill to climb to nab the Calder in this season. The season also started 4 Oct so starting your calculations on the 25th to make his numbers seem better is just foolish.

        1. Firstly, thanks for the comment. To take the time to hop on the keyboard and express your opinion on a story I've written, that's a level of engagement I never expect so I do appreciate that. Truly.

          I fully agree with you that the talent level difference between Matthews/Laine and Tkachuk is significant, especially from raw offensive skills. That's why the former went 1st and 2nd in the draft seven months ago and Tkachuk went 6th. The genesis for the piece and perhaps I did not articulate this as well as I thought was the question, is he making a case to be considered the best of the rest? Could he be one of the three finalists? That was the angle, not is he better than Matthews or Laine.

          So per your point, it's Werenski, it's Mitch Marner, it's Matt Murray, that's where the debate lies and it's a discussion that's far from over. Many more chapters to be written with another three months to go in the regular season.

          Regarding the Oct. 25, another side angle to the piece but very much at a macro local level more for Flames fans was the impact he's had since he joined the line he's currently on with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, which should be Calgary's third line and it would have looked that way on a depth chart in September, but has ended up the team's No. 1 line.

          Since put together, that line has been very, very good and the answer to 'how good?' Is why that split point was used. As stated, it may seem random but that's the story behind it and the relevance to what I appreciate may look like a "foolish" way to do it.


      5. Great article Darren. I noticed, Boomer gets all his sports idea from reading your articles so that's a compliment I suppose. Kind of sad too, however that he has none of his own. In any case, since I saw the young man in Penticton there was little doubt he was ready for the big time. He's quickly becoming the team's all round best player while letting all the radio guys like Boomer give props to Backs and Frolik not coincidentally. Although they are both playing well, there's little doubt this young man has boosted their game immensely.

        1. Boomer and Rhett used to be two of Backlund's biggest detractors. Pinder always defended the guy, but he was out-gunned most of the time because his adversaries hate shot metrics.

        2. Thanks for the feedback, appreciate that. Boomer and I live just a few blocks apart. Good to know we're in the same vicinity with our thinking too!

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