As Flames fans eagerly await Matthew Tkachuk‘s contract to be signed, one question rarely asked is how good of a player Tkachuk actually is. Is he one of the league’s up and coming elite players or has he been boosted by playing alongside Mikael Backlund for much of his young career?
Backlund is without a doubt one of the best two-way centres in the game. Often tasked with the hardest defensive zone starts, he has been effective in shutting down some of the top lines in the league. In spite of this, he consistently has a positive Corsi-for percentage and drives play in the offensive zone. Looking at the numbers, he has carried a variety of linemates time and time again, making them look much stronger than they are with other players.
A look at Tkachuk’s on-ice impact
Through no fault of his own, Tkachuk has been stapled to Backlund’s wing for the majority of his career. Having played over 2400 minutes with Backlund and only 453 minutes away from him since the 2016-17 season, the question remains: who is driving play on that line?
Natural Stat Trick has a tool that isolates a player’s statistics to determine whether they are bringing a teammate up, or if their teammate makes them look better than they may be. It’s a rough evaluation and needs to be taken with a grain of salt because of the impact context plays in a team sport like hockey, but it is a starting point in the evaluation of players relative to each other.
Looking at Tkachuk’s numbers , when he plays with Backlund, their Corsi for together is 57.5% at 5v5. However, when Tkachuk is away from Backlund, it drops to 53.2%, and when Backlund is not playing with Tkachuk, Backlund’s Corsi drops below the 50% mark at 47.8%. It would appear that Backlund may actually be receiving a bump from playing with Tkachuk rather than the other way around. Aside from Tkachuk, Backlund’s most common linemates were Michael Frolik, Sam Bennett, and Troy Brouwer.
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Backlund may be seeing a drop from playing with less good players, however he has notably been good at bringing less good players up. Looking at his numbers, aside from Frolik and Tkachuk, no other Flames forward has looked better without Backlund than with him. It may be that Backlund is just better than most of the other players that he has played with but not Tkachuk, but it looks like Tkachuk is the driver on the line with Backlund.
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Tkachuk’s other most common linemate was Michael Frolik, with them and Backlund forming the famed 3M line. At 5v5, Tkachuk and Frolik had a Corsi for of 58.4%. However, when he was away from Tkachuk, Frolik dropped substantially to 52.2% in the 673 minutes away from his mouthguard chewing companion.
Looking at Frolik’s most common linemates outside of Tkachuk, it is a similar story to Backlund. He was effective with all three other players, even Johnny Gaudreau who is arguably the Flames strongest forward.
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While Frolik and Backlund may take a bit of a hit when away from Tkachuk because of less good linemates, Tkachuk has a similar story. Apart from his two other M’s, Tkachuk’s most common linemates have been Bennett, Sean Monahan, and Brouwer; a bit of a mixed bag. What is interesting is that Tkachuk’s presence on all three of their lines makes them better. There is not a single forward Tkachuk has played more than five minutes with that looks better without him than with him.
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So, what’s the hold up?
If the Flames know how good Tkachuk is and Tkachuk’s camp knows how good he is, why has he not been signed yet?
For his whole NHL career, Tkachuk has been a second line winger. He has played over 2000 more minutes with Backlund than any other centre while being tasked with heavy defensive starts. Having been touted for his offensive abilities when he was drafted, the Flames are unsure of what his true offensive ceiling is. Is he a strong two-way winger with offensive upside or is he a bonafide top line NHL winger?
If the Flames see Tkachuk as a second line shutdown guy going forward, it does not make sense for them to pay him more than their top line players. With TJ Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Cam Talbot, and others becoming unrestricted free agents, and Andrew Mangiapane, Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington, and others becoming restricted free agents, the Flames need to be cautious about how they use their valuable cap space.
Still, the Flames do not know how good Tkachuk can be offensively. Putting up 77 points on a line tasked with shutting down the best players in the game shows that he definitely has offensive skills, however if the Flames put him in alongside a centre like Monahan and tasked him with scoring goals, how much better could he be. Looking at his numbers from Junior when he played for the (very stacked) London Knights, Tkachuk put up 107 points in 57 games on route to the Memorial Cup.
However, he has only had one dynamite offensive season, this last one, so it does not make sense to pay a player with such a small sample size. Looking at Gaudreau and Monahan, there was a much larger sample size to look at for their deals. The Flames had played them in offensive roles for most of their careers and had a track record on which to base their performance.
This, in essence, is the question. If the Flames see Tkachuk as a second line two-way winger, it makes sense to try to keep his cap hit around or below that of Gaudreau and Monahan, in the $6 million range. But if they see him as a potential top line winger, that pushes the ceiling way up; they have no idea how good Tkachuk can be and do not want to risk overpaying for a player for who has infrequently performed the role of a top-line player thus far.
What are the options?
The Flames could take a risk on Tkachuk and pay him tons in a long term deal, but knowing Brad Treliving, that does not seem likely. A cautious man, Treliving is not one to overpay for a player even when he knows they are excellent. The work he did to sign Johnny Gaudreau for the same amount as Mark Giordano is a key example of this.
The Flames will probably end up signing Tkachuk to a bridge deal. From the Flames’ perspective, this would allow them to figure out what Tkachuk’s true ceiling might be, and mitigate the risk of overpaying him. From Tkachuk’s standpoint, he probably feels he can be a consistent 70-80 point player and if he does hit those marks over the term of a bridge deal, it opens up the door for an even bigger third contract.
While some bridge deals are relatively flat, the trend recently has been a bridge deal of three to four years with a big base salary increase in the last year. Brock Boeser‘s three year $17.625 million dollar contract may be a comparable. Boeser will be paid $4 million dollars in year one, $6.125 million dollars in year two and $7.5 million dollars in year three.
The risk with this scenario is that if the Flames opt for a similar bridge deal for Tkachuk, they have to qualify him on a one year contract at the value of the last year of his previous one in order to retain his rights. For example, let’s say the Flames sign Tkachuk to the exact same contract as Boeser (they probably won’t). And let’s say he is not a $7.5 million dollar player in 3 years, but he turns out to be closer to a $5 million dollar player, they have to offer him a contract at that amount and then work through the arbitration system to determine the fair value of the next contract.
The team also cannot ask for a greater than 15 percent reduction in salary for the next year. The lowest the Flames can ask for in terms of reduction would be $6.375 million dollars. If the team and player don’t reach a consensus on their own, arbitration could make it turn into a messy situation, one that rarely ends happily.
What does this all mean?
Given the data, it seems likely that Tkachuk can be a driving force both in defensive situations, but also in offensive. The question still remains: how good can he be down the road? There is no doubt that Tkachuk will make tons of money over the course of his career, but the question that GM Brad Treliving and his team are likely trying to determine is how much is he worth now.
The Flames could take the risk and overpay him for his worth now knowing that there is a good chance that he could become a top 10 or top 15 winger in the NHL down the road. If this happens, they will have saved money as opposed to what he could be worth at the end of a bridge deal.
If he does not grow into a top winger in the game and the Flames sign him to a long term, big money contract then they will have less money to be able to sign other players that they may need to get them deep in the playoffs. A bridge deal seems likely.
With the Flames close to the salary cap ceiling currently, there is virtually no wiggle room in signing Tkachuk. Given Tkachuk’s performance over the last few seasons, there are still a number of questions to be answered about how good he can be down the road. We all hold our breath as our Agitator in Chief remains to be signed.
Thanks to Ryan Pike of Flames Nation for an insightful discussion on the matter.
Image courtesy: USA Today