No one on the Calgary Flames needs a 2021-22 redemption season more than Matthew Tkachuk. As a fan, his season was incredibly frustrating to watch. He was unable to score goals, made awkward between-the-legs passes, and got angry. A lot. The Flames as a team struggled to live up to their collective potential, however, there’s an expectation that Tkachuk is someone who can always bring it in the offensive zone. Instead, his performance ended up being a tough pill to swallow.
If Calgary hopes to make a playoff push next season, Tkachuk needs to be at his best. With the season coming to a close, we break down Tkachuk’s struggles, possible explanations for his performance, and what his future looks like with the Flames.
Season at a glance
Whether it was out-of-control passes or giveaways at the blue line, something seemed to always go wrong for Tkachuk. Considering he is making big bucks as the highest paid player on the team, Tkachuk should be making a positive impact when he is on the ice more often than not. This season though, he stood out in a negative way. He made questionable decisions particularly in the neutral zone which made him look more like a rookie than a five-year veteran.
Tkachuk stepped up as the leading scorer last season, but seemed to crack under the pressure this year. While he still managed to occupy space in front of the net, the level of threat his presence typically brings completely disappeared, and he didn’t look as rock solid and ready for rebounds as he has in past seasons. Each of his 11 goals this season felt different from years past, considering he never seemed to be in the right place to score.
Looking deeper into the numbers from Natural Stat Trick tells a different story. He stats across his career are relatively consistent, and do not necessarily reflect how his performance looked from a glance.
His Corsi for (CF%) while on the ice has been fairly consistent, however this is an overall on-ice metric that is affected by his linemates. Specifically Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane have been quite strong possession players over their careers. Even Tkachuk’s expected goals for (xGF%) was strong; in fact, he posted the highest xGF% of his career.
Tkachuk’s individual numbers also looked pretty good.
Once again, he posted strong numbers basically across the board with career highs in iSCF/60, and pretty darn close to career highs in iHDCF/60 and ixG/60. From a purely analytics based perspective, Tkachuk had a strong season in line with the strong seasons of years past.
So given these numbers, things should have gone better for Tkachuk, but this season has been a prime case of the numbers not matching the eye test. Was Tkachuk just that much more effective in previous years where a “bad” year still ended up being fairly respectable based on the fancy stats? Maybe there is more to it.
A defining aspect of Tkachuk’s game is his aggressive and physical play. He is the hockey equivalent of a bull in a china shop. His presence in front of the net is a huge strength in his game, drawing defenders as well as positioning himself for tips and rebounds. Tkachuk’s ability to irritate the other team is unmatched within the NHL as well, which is no surprise considering his comfort in hitting anyone and everyone.
There is no doubt in past seasons he has used this style of play to send opponents to the box. While he still drew more penalties than he was given this season, the tables seem to be turning against him. In past seasons, he has consistently drawn penalties at a higher rate than he took. This season he had 13 penalties while only drawing 15.
|Season||Total Penalties/60||Minor/60||Major/60||Penalties Drawn/60|
Tkachuk’s total penalties taken was way up from last season, driven both by an uptick in minors and majors. Taking penalties is not necessarily a bad thing, but the ability to counterbalance this by drawing penalties makes a significant difference. Power plays can be the difference between a win and a loss, and Tkachuk put the Flames on the wrong end of them too often this season.
This brings into question the future of Tkachuk’s style of play. With five seasons under his belt, it is possible opponents know too much about his game and will stop falling for his trap. One of his best traits was getting under the skin of opponents, but if opponents are less fazed, then he loses a big edge.
When full league play returns, things might change as he could go back to his pesky self knowing opponents won’t face him as often as they did in this shortened season. On top of that, it’s also possible officials are balancing things out, which is ultimately not something that can be controlled.
When did things go wrong?
Tkachuk’s season started off how everyone expected. He was throwing big hits, starting fights, and generally being a nuisance on the ice. He looked like the all-star that other teams love to hate. Hopes for the playoffs were high in the early days of the season, and the Flames had the talent on the roster to make it happen.
His season took a visible turn after one specific incident, the Jake Muzzin puck flip. Tkachuk had a full blown meltdown in the dying seconds against Toronto on January 26th. It was disappointing to watch as Tkachuk clearly felt disrespected by Muzzin, and lacked any real support from his team.
Following that game, the infamous players-only meeting occurred, where it’s rumoured Tkachuk was asked to tone it down. Since the incident Tkachuk did exactly that, toning down his aggressive game significantly. Ever since, he has looked like a completely different player.
While Tkachuk has been known to have a tantrum or two, this one was justified. Nobody wants to feel personally attacked, especially after a loss. He may have had an overreaction, but it’s reasonable to expect your teammates to have your back no matter what, but that was not the case. If Tkachuk felt slighted because of that meeting, you can’t really blame him.
Tkachuk is an agitator on the ice and he uses it as a key piece in his style of play. He plays aggressively to get under his opponents’ skin and backs it up by putting the puck in the net. After his style of play was toned down following the Muzzin confrontation, his skill in other aspects of the game suffered.
There is no way to know whether this incident had a direct impact on his performance. The worst case scenario for Tkachuk’s lack of contribution this season would be a chemistry problem. If there was a disconnect between players where he felt unsupported, it could absolutely impact his performance on the ice.
Other possible causes
The biggest change in Tkachuk’s life (as well as anyone else’s) this year is the pandemic. Both social restrictions and league changes are major life events which could have carried over into his performance. Everyone was affected by COVID-19 differently, and the lack of family nearby, inability to travel, continuous schedule changes and other pandemic influences are possibilities of why Tkachuk struggled to live up to his potential on the ice.
Is the pandemic the only factor? Probably not, however sometimes it is difficult for us as fans to step back and remember that every player in the NHL is still human. They faced the same stress, uncertainty, and frustration as the rest of the world.
Another significant change for the Flames as a unit was the transition between head coaches Geoff Ward and Darryl Sutter. On paper, Tkachuk seems to fit the description of a Sutter style player. Hard hitting, dump and chase and good puck handling. Each coach however has unique expectations and particularly strong personalities. It can be extremely difficult to adjust to a new coach in such a short time span. Throw in the fact that Tkachuk is a leader on this team and that adds another layer to that already difficult transition.
The last and most likely conclusion would be that Tkachuk simply had a bad season. It happens to athletes across all sports and there is not always a reason. While he was not the top goal scorer for the Flames this year, he led the team in assists as well as individual scoring chances (iSCF) and individual high-danger scoring chances (iHDCF). If he was able to convert all his chances to goals, this review could be completely different.
Luck, or the lack of it, is very much real. The numbers show that Tkachuk had quality chances, and in another season when things swing the other way, it’s possible we’re talking about how Tkachuk had another solid season as a top player on this team.
Tkachuk’s future with Calgary
Based on the stats across his entire career, its easy to assume this is a one-off, bad season. None of his numbers this year were concerning enough to believe he will be a long term liability. He absolutely needs a rebound season in 2021-22, but if anyone can do it, it will be Tkachuk. The good new is all of his mistakes this year are absolutely fixable. Cleaning up his giveaways and unnecessary penalties would put him back on track to be the it-factor for the Flames.
While a potential trade feels tempting after a player fails to deliver, it is way too soon to let Tkachuk go. At only 23 years old, Chucky has a long future ahead of him in the league. There is no question he is a talented player and will be an asset for years to come. I see no other option for the Flames than to allow him the opportunity to rebound next season, and see how capable he is to not only score goals, but lead this team.
Trade rumours circling around potential deals with Buffalo or the Rangers are including Tkachuk instead of considering the alternative. Bringing in new players could elevate Tkachuk’s game and turn him into a powerhouse again. He is a key player to build a new roster around, so why would the Flames retool without him in the toolkit?
One possible trade that has all fans excited is a deal with Buffalo for Jack Eichel, however including Tkachuk in this trade would be a huge mistake. Pairing a Gaurdreau-Eichel-Tkachuk line is exactly the opportunity needed for the Flames top forwards and could be the spark to ignite Tkachuk once again. If the Flames can make it work without including Tkachuk and Gaudreau, that would obviously be preferable. It’s a tough trade that will require some major assets going to Buffalo, but gaining Eichel at the departure of Tkachuk would be a travesty.
There is no doubt Tkachuk is a capable goal scorer, playermaker, and enforcer. One bad season does not prevent him from having a successful future, and the Flames need to place their trust in Tkachuk to have a rebound season next year. The return to regular divisions could be exactly the difference Tkachuk needs to make opponents love to hate him once again.