Its no secret that the shortened 2020–21 season was not Matthew Tkachuk‘s best. Although still one of the best players on the Calgary Flames, it felt like his impact, emotionally and statistically, was not the same as it had been in the past.
Heading into this year, the need for a bounce-back season from Tkachuk was an important storyline. Early on, he has delivered, driving the top line to its current heights.
After scoring at a rate of 0.88 points per game in 2019–20, and 0.96 points per game in 2018–19, he managed just 43 points in 56 games, good for just 0.77. This season, he is scoring at a rate of 0.82 points per game, a noticeable step in the right direction.
His scoring rate not recovering further can likely be explained in part by a low on-ice shooting percentage. The Flames are shooting only 8.3% while Tkachuk is on the ice, the second lowest total of his career. While not on pace to reach a personal best point total, but his underlying numbers are among the best in his career to date, and represent a massive improvement over last season.
Crunching Tkachuk’s numbers
Using Evolving-Hockey‘s goals above replacement and expected goals data, the bounce back in Tkachuk’s game is far more pronounced. On top of his offensive rebound, he has been more effective defensively than at any other point in his career—and he’s never had a season with a negative impact on defence. That means more than a bounce-back, Tkachuk has found a whole new gear this season.
Some numbers help to illustrate Tkachuk’s impressive season so far. All data in this table is taken at 5v5, score and venue adjusted. Cumulative stats have been converted to rates to account for the different number of games played in 2021 compared to the current season so far.
In every category, Tkachuk has improved. Most notably however, is the improvement in xGAR. Improvements in the percentage categories are heavily impacted by teammates. These are on-ice totals that reflect the share of shot attempts (Corsi) and expected goals that the team as a whole had while Tkachuk was on the ice.
Similarly, GAR describes the impact of a player on the ice, and is impacted by teammate performance. If teammates are scoring a lot, or if Tkachuk himself rides a hot shooting streak, it’s impacted. xGAR, by attempting to be a more predictive model, accounts for on-ice shooting percentage swings, making it a more accurate reflection of Tkachuk himself.
Essentially, GAR describes results, and xGAR describes the process behind the results. With that in mind, the doubling of xGAR/60 this season over last is truly remarkable. His current rate is a career best, mainly because of serious defensive improvement.
Breaking down his xGAR into its offensive and defensive components, his rate of defensive xGAR is more than double his previous career best. At the other end of the rink, his offensive xGAR is among the best of his career, after a career worst rate in 2021.
The breakdown by component below, also from Evolving-Hockey, shows how well-rounded his game has been, with the only negative category being penalties taken.
Simply put, he is playing the most complete game of his career, and hasn’t sacrificed offence in the process.
The only lagging factor is his teammates’ ability to finish, as unbelievable as it seems with the strong season the top line is having. Tkachuk’s assist rate of 1.3 per 60 this season is the second lowest of his career, but, with his impressive underlying numbers and low on-ice shooting percentage, is likely to improve.
Aside from the numbers, Tkachuk’s impact has been substantially more visible on the ice this season than last. At the peak of his game, Tkachuk is the heartbeat of the Flames. And this season, he’s stirring up trouble after the whistle, drawing penalties, and has generally returned to his old tricks.
He even got into it with Doughty, as sure a sign as any he’s back in top form.
Even in his down season, he was a star. Now, he has reclaimed his status as not just a star, but a truly premier star in the league. If this keeps up—and there’s little reason to expect it to change—Tkachuk will have earned the vacant captain position in no time.
Cover photo by: Derek Leung/Getty Images