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‘Mature’ Tkachuk a force for the Flames this season



Calgary Flames Matthew Tkachuk

Matthew Tkachuk’s slick shootout goal is still a hot topic. And rightly so. The Calgary Flames winger pulled out the Forsberg move and perfected it on the fly to win a division matchup against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday.

What people may not be talking about enough is what a force Tkachuk has been this season in pretty much every area of the game. The back-to-back games in Southern California have put his intensity and agitating nature back in the spotlight. He’s pissed off Drew Doughty and Trevor Zegras. But he’s doing it a bit differently. A little more naturally and tactically, perhaps.

There has never been any question about Tkachuk’s talent or effort, but last year’s season from hell came with a bit of a sideshow. He and his teammates didn’t seem to be on the same page, and it was obvious at the end of the loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto that his outrage wasn’t shared by his teammates after a disrespectful puck flip from Jake Muzzin at the buzzer.

According to Elliotte Friedman at the time, a meeting that followed that incident brought to light a disconnect in the dressing room. Players were frustrated with Tkachuk’s actions. He was confused they weren’t showing the same spirit as he was.

You’d never know it now.

Winger channeling his emotional intensity in all the right ways

This version of the Calgary Flames is tight. Teams say it all the time, but this group is walking the talk. Maybe winning ultimately makes everything better but on top of that, Tkachuk seems to have found more balance to his game. He’s still intense, but he seems to be channeling his ever-present emotional engagement in the most positive ways – into heavy hits, strong checking, and, yes, highlight-reel goals.

“He’s been great. I think he matured a lot over the summer, came in with the right attitude, ready to kind of change and get things moving in the right direction as far as how he plays day in and day out, and how he works day in and day out, and just kind of changing the culture and what it needed to be for us to be a good team again,” veteran Milan Lucic said this week. “I think he’s really stepped up and done that and I think that’s why he’s been the player he has been so far this year.

“He needs to keep growing and keep getting better as far as that goes, and we’re going to get the Matthew Tkachuk that we all want to see.”

That last line was interesting. You can read into it in different ways. Lucic may just be saying that Tkachuk, like all players on the team, needs to keep building and growing and improving for the Flames to get to where they want to be by the end of the season.

But if you look at it from a lens of what was happening last season, you might also infer that he’s still earning trust.

Tkachuk clearly a leader with Flames this season

Either way, Tkachuk sure looks like a guy ready to lead his team emotionally but also on the scoresheet on any given night. And it’s easy to forget that he’s still a week away from his 24th birthday six seasons into his NHL career.

He sounds like a leader, too.

Asked what he’s most happy about personally this season, he gave an answer that would make his head coach proud.

“Nothing,” Tkachuk said.

“Wanted to come in here and be part of a winning team, a championship team. Just play good hockey and give myself a chance to play in the playoffs again. I think that’s what everyone in the locker-room wants.”

Tkachuk’s 11 goals were mentioned in the Sutter scrum after the win over the Los Angeles Kings. But the coach pointed out Tkachuk’s overall presence. The mentality that all Sutter’s players seem to have adopted this year.

“It’s more than goals. It’s got to be more than goals. If it’s just about goals and assists, then our team’s not going to get better,” Sutter said. “He’s playing a more complete game and manages his game better. That’s the difference.”

The goals are pretty nice, too.

Spectacular shootout goal one for the ages

That shootout winner on John Gibson was special. Tkachuk said in a chat with Sportsnet’s Ryan Leslie after the game that he blacked out.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull that one off again,” Tkachuk told Calgary Flames TV.

“I’ve never done that before either. I just thought that we had three chances to win so come in with speed and try something different. Try to get him to bite.

“I had a breakaway earlier on him and he made a great save and slid early so I thought if I came in with speed and did that, I’d have a chance to get him, and I did. But good goalie.”

Good goalie. Better move.

“That was a pretty crazy goal. He’s a smart, skilled player so I wasn’t shocked he could pull that off,” said fellow shootout sniper Johnny Gaudreau. Johnny was neck and neck with Noah Hanifin in the race to mob Tkachuk after the sick move ended the game.

But Gaudreau was also quick to mention Tkachuk’s other skills.

Enjoy the ride with contract uncertainty ahead

“I think he’s just an all-around type of player. He has those hands where in tight he can make those moves. You’ve seen him go between the legs a bunch. And then he’s good in our own zone, throws the body around and gets physical.

“Just a great guy to have on our team.”

Both Gaudreau and Tkachuk are in contract years. The Flames need to figure out how to fit both under the salary cap next season. Assuming they want to stay.

It won’t be easy with Gaudreau able to test the UFA market this summer. Tkachuk is in need of a $9-million qualifying offer with no guarantee he won’t walk into unrestricted status himself after next season.

Contract uncertainty is one reason Tkachuk’s name was in NHL trade rumours during the Jack Eichel saga. But based on the way the Calgary Flames are playing right now, not making any moves sure seems like the right move.

Whatever the future holds, Flames fans will get to enjoy more moves like the shootout dangle in the meantime.