Matthew Tkachuk is an asset the Flames didn’t even know they had when the season started.
He was a question mark. Would he make the Flames out of camp? Evidently, yes; he had the size going for him, and the talent level, too. But would he be able to stick around past nine games?
Fifty-two games into the Flames’ season, he’s tied for third in team scoring. So apparently… yes.
Tkachuk isn’t just performing well; he’s one of the Flames’ best players already. And as someone who can play both wings, the Flames have a great opportunity with him. Now, it’s just a matter of where they end up putting him.
Breaking up 3M
The obvious answer for some time now has been to play Tkachuk on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. Under normal circumstances, those two are as good a pair of linemates as any rookie could ever ask for.
These aren’t normal circumstances, though, because Tkachuk has far and away exceeded all expectations of him. He isn’t just being helped along by Backlund and Frolik – he’s helping them in turn. They’re all boosting each other to be one of the best lines in the entire NHL.
An unfortunate side effect, then, considering both the Flames’ lack of depth and struggling stars, is that this has turned them into a one-line team. In their final game before the All-Star Break, Glen Gulutzan took a preliminary step towards rectifying that by taking Frolik and putting him on a line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. The early returns from that one game? It worked.
So is there further meddling to be done here? Perhaps.
An all-in top line
Bless Frolik; he’s incredible at what he does. He is also, in an ideal world, not a top line forward. He’s almost 29 years old and his career high in points is 45; he’s on pace for 46 this season. He’s an extremely good complementary player – about half a point per game, excellent defensively – but if you’re relying on him for scoring, you’re probably screwed. (See: the Flames at the start of the season.)
Meanwhile, while Gaudreau and Monahan have generally been quite good in their own rights, things just haven’t been the same since Good Jiri Hudler left them. The magic died away, Hudler was traded, and Hudreaunahan has yet to find a new fitting incarnation.
Maybe Tkachuk can be that guy. Tkareaunahan? Gaunachuk? It’ll be a work in progress.
There are a couple of reasons to be in favour of this. For one thing, it’s pretty much a recreation of Tkachuk’s junior success; for all the handwringing about how much of his scoring was him and how much it was his linemates, Tkachuk had a lot of success with Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak in London last season. Granted, that was juniors and this is the NHL, but it’s not like Gaudreau and Monahan haven’t been a dynamic duo of their own in the recent past…
Also, Tkachuk is 19. This isn’t 33-year-old Hudler, this is someone who fits directly in to Gaudreau and Monahan’s age group. If that line clicks, then that could be the line to stick with for years.
Frolik started to get Gaudreau and Monahan going. Can Tkachuk rev them up even further? He’s just a rookie, but this season it’s not out of the question.
Help for Sam Bennett
Remember Brad Treliving’s affinity for forward pairs? Gaudreau and Monahan. Backlund and Frolik. And, going into this season, it was assumed Tkachuk and Sam Bennett would be one, too.
They’re close in age. They both have high offensive talent. They both play with an edge. From before they even took to the ice, it was presumably a match made in heaven.
And it started that way, too. Remember preseason? They played on the same line through the start of the season as well, but everything was already falling apart by then. And then fell even more apart for Bennett, who simply has not been able to get his game going at all.
Is it time to reunite Bennett with Tkachuk? Could Tkachuk fix Bennett?
Bennett and Tkachuk have played just 50:15 5v5 minutes together this season. That’s it; that’s hardly anything. Bennett has gotten more ice time alongside Monahan and Stajan – players who play his position – than he has along with Tkachuk. Bennett’s very best corsi numbers this season have come alongside him (56.5% CF!); we’re talking about a kid who has only gotten above 50% when sharing the ice with the Flames’ top defence pairing and when with Monahan (in much more sheltered zone starts than with Tkachuk).
Who needs Tkachuk the most?
There are a lot of different combinations we can go with here, but if the 3M line is going to be broken up, then Tkachuk should have at least one of Gaudreau, Monahan, or Bennett on his line. This is the age group he fits into; this is the young core of the Flames forwards.
Here’s one of the things with Tkachuk: he makes just about everyone he plays with better. Corsica visualization with his most frequent teammates:
They don’t all necessarily make each other better – the only particularly strong cases for that are Backlund, Frolik, and a bit of Dougie Hamilton – but pretty much everyone is worse off without Tkachuk. You have to dig down into the more inconsequential minutes to find teammates who are better away from him.
Unfortunately, Gaudreau is one of those guys; fortunately, the two have played like six even strength minutes together, so that can’t even begin to be described as a concern.
But as enticing as a Gaudreau – Monahan – Tkachuk line sounds, if Frolik can respectably hold the fort, then it’s probably Bennett who needs Tkachuk the most. I’m not sure his struggles this season are quite entirely on him; his most common linemates have been Alex Chiasson and Troy Brouwer, after all. (Side note: Brouwer is one of the few Flames that can make Tkachuk a sub-50% CF player.) Give Bennett a good linemate – one his age who has proven he can not only drive play, but score as well – and the Flames might have that dream forward pairing on their hands, after all.
It’s filling out the rest of the lineup that’s a problem. That’s three forward pairings – or, presumably, a top six, if Backlund and Frolik stay split up – still with some major forward holes to be filled.
And granted, Tkachuk could be one of those hole-fillers instead, but the Flames are still at least another impact forward away – and they only have one Tkachuk to work with, so they have to make a decision on which line he’ll best be of help to the team.