Back in June, the Calgary Flames lucked out when they drafted Matthew Tkachuk at sixth overall. A product of the St. Louis minor hockey system (and son of long-time NHLer Keith), Tkachuk was a very good player for the U.S. National Development Program’s U18 team and then a very good player for the London Knights last season.
He’s played four games thus far for the Flames. If he plays 10 games, the first season of his entry-level contract – the three cheapest seasons of a productive offensive player’s career – will be burned off and his deal will begin to run. There are many aspects to the “Should Tkachuk play all season in the NHL?” discussion. For right now, let’s focus entirely on what’s happening on the ice.
How has he been through four games?
Let’s start here. Tkachuk is one of just eight Flames to have a goal through four games (and one of just six forwards). He also has eight shots on goal and a minus-1 rating. Among forwards, Troy Brouwer, Sam Bennett, Kris Versteeg, Matt Stajan and Lance Bouma all have fewer shots. Among forwards, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, Mikael Backlund and Johnny Gaudreau have worse plus/minus, for whatever that’s worth.
He’s been one of the better forwards in this general area through four games, though hardly exceptional. (He’s not Mitch Marner or Auston Matthews.)
In terms of puck possession, Tkachuk is fifth on the team among forwards in Corsi For percentage (56.47%). He’s second among forwards in Corsi For rate (CF/60), but has the second-worst Corsi Against rate (CA/60). Given his in experience, the iffy defensive stat makes sense. Among forwards that get power play time, he’s second (behind only Backlund) in Corsi For rate (CF/60) with the man advantage.
Game-by-game, Tkachuk’s Corsi For was as follows: 66.7%, 59.1%, 38.9% and 53.3% On its face, those numbers sound really great, but bear in mind the entire team has fairly good Corsi. Compared to the rest of the team, his Corsi Rel for each of the four games, his numbers seem less impressive: +16.7%, +1.3%, -1.1% and -11.8%.
Again: he’s been one of the better forwards on the team, but his numbers aren’t quite as good as they look. He’s been getting worse relative to the rest of the team over time.
CONTEXT & USAGE
Fundamentally speaking, Tkachuk is playing as much per game as Micheal Ferland, and more than Lance Bouma, Alex Chiasson and Matt Stajan. He’s consistently playing between nine and 10 minutes of even strength per night, plus second unit power play time. He’s played primarily with Brouwer and Bennett, though he was used quite a bit against Vancouver and Buffalo with Stajan and Versteeg. He scored his goal while playing with Stajan and Versteeg.
Interestingly enough, he’s received less and less “high ground” in each game. His offensive zone starts have shrunk in every game: 80%, 57.1%, 14.3% and 0.0%. Every even strength shift he had against Buffalo was a defensive or neutral zone start.
In terms of zone entries, while the data’s not completely compiled for the Buffalo game, he was second on the entire team (behind Gaudreau) in total zone entries. When you factor in his ice time, that’s fairly impressive. His carry-in rate from game to game is all over the map, but he’s consistently one of the best players (along with Gaudreau and Bennett) at total zone entries, and in a couple of the games he was one of the better players at carry-ins.
THE COACH’S ASSESSMENT
“He’s an emotional player and, like I said, he’s in the fabric of the game. He’s always in there. He scored that goal, and I think that got him charged up and he had a couple big hits after that, and put a little life into the bench and into the building. That’s what young guys have to do, they provide energy and he did a good job.” – Glen Gulutzan following Tuesday’s game with Buffalo, noting Tkachuk’s impact.
“My evaluation of Matthew Tkachuk right now is… the one thing I like from a young player standpoint, I’ve had lots of young guys, is the way he’s managing the puck. You still see some, he gets knocked down every now and then being a young guy, but the way he’s managing the puck and managing his game and his attention to detail that we’ve talked about from the start of training camp has been very good.” – Gulutzan, on his evaluation of Tkachuk’s play through four games.
SUM IT UP
Tkachuk has played four games in the NHL as an 18-year-old. He’s never looked out of place and he hasn’t embarrassed himself (or his team). In addition, he’s been one of the better forwards on the club in a couple of the games and he was a definite difference maker in the win over Buffalo.
Is he going to be able to sustain this play over 82 games? I don’t know. There are established NHLers that can’t maintain strong play over 82 games. Is he better than the next-best player that would theoretically replace him from Stockton? If you are operating under the premise that he would be replaced by Hunter Shinkaruk or Garnet Hathaway if he went back to the London Knights, I’m willing to say that right now he’s better than they are. He’ll probably be better throughout the rest of the season, as well.
If your decision making related to Tkachuk staying with the Flames or going back to junior is entirely based on his on-ice performance and his ability to help the Flames win more games with him than without him, he should stay. Even while trying to find his footing on a team that’s been out of sorts and making weird decisions with the puck, he’s been one of their better forwards.