The tell on the Matthew Tkachuk commentary Thursday is as easy to spot as a cheesy slew foot or a spear caught on camera.
If you read, or hear, someone say that they wouldn’t want Tkachuk on their team, that person is a fan boy. OK?
They say that because they don’t like the Flames. And they do love the Canucks, Leafs, Oilers, whomever…
The fact is, whatever you think about Tkachuk’s antics, only Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine are — at this point — clearly superior assets to come out of the 2016 draft. If you don’t want one of hockey’s premier 19-year-olds — who scores, hits, fights, pesters, and skates as well as Tkachuk does — your hockey acumen requires a reboot.
Eventually, players like Clayton Keller, Jesse Puljujarvi, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Mikhail Sergachev and a few others might horn in on the conversation. But on Dec. 7, 2017, the 2016 draft class goes Matthews, Laine, Tkachuk — full stop.
So we’ve established our respect for the asset, if not for some of the traits that Tkachuk currently exhibits. But, let’s face it: If I look back at my own decisions, they became infinitely wiser from age 19 to 23, and we’re sure the same thing will apply to the young Flames winger.
For now, however, we get “dumb decision” Tkachuk, who spent last season doling out cheesy slew-foots and a few unnecessary head shots, and this season has discovered the sneaky-dirty spear from a protected spot behind his front-of-the-line teammates. His latest came Wednesday while on the Flames’ bench, when Tkachuk discreetly issued a tacit spear to Toronto’s Matt Martin.
Tkachuk’s heart clearly wasn’t in it, and was suspended one game by the Department of Player Safety on Thursday for his actions.
“I didn’t feel it at the time but I guess if he’s going to do stuff like that he should make it count,” shrugged Martin. “It’s child’s play.”
Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock agreed, calling Tkachuk’s act, “junior hockey stuff.”
“He’ll learn over time,” said Babcock, adding: “He played a good game, he played hard. No reason for that stuff.”
It is simply not a good look, and knowing his father Keith a little bit — having spent his entire career as a Western-based NHL reporter — we are quite comfortable in predicting that Tkachuk Sr. winced when he saw the latest artistry from his lad Wednesday night in Toronto.
“Funny thing,” began Calgary teammate Johnny Gaudreau on a ‘Spittin’ Chiclets’ podcast taped over the summer. “We were with (Keith) at dinner, and Matthew will bring up something random and Mr. Tkachuk will be like, ‘Matthew, you have 20 games (played). Shut up. You’re a rookie. Keep your mouth shut.’
“He’s a great player in our locker-room, and a great teammates, and he likes to stir the pot a little bit on the ice. And we need a player like that.”
Having that player that every other fan base detests is fun. Having that player that players on other teams can’t stand is a competitive advantage.
Tkachuk has made himself into both of those guys — sort of.
This much we know to be true: Tkachuk will have to make some alterations to his game, ultimately, to garner the unilateral respect from teammates and opponents that his father had. Because until they outlaw fighting, the NHL is still a place that demands a player stands up for himself when challenged on less respectful acts like spears and slew foots.
Disclaimer: If you’re anti-fighting, click away. Because here comes the ugly truth, as the game stands today:
In Tkachuk’s first NHL game, played at Edmonton, he slew-footed Oilers defenceman Brandon Davidson, giving him a concussion. Then, with a few seconds left in an irretrievable game, he launched himself at Adam Larsson’s head against the corner glass.
Ever since, a young defenceman who was on the ice with Davidson — Oiler Darnell Nurse — has voiced an open invitation to Tkachuk to drop the gloves and prove himself. Nurse dropped that invite again last Saturday — check the game tape — and Tkachuk’s eyes were averted while Nurse smiled down from above.
Fine. We will never criticize a player for not wanting to fight a man of Nurse’s size and ability. I wouldn’t either.
But here’s the rub: When you play the way Tkachuk plays, eventually you either have to take that fight or quit the cheap antics. Or else, Nurse might start doing to your skilled teammates what you’ve been doing to everyone else, to get that long list of priors with Player Safety.
And that’s where the gig boomerangs on you.
This is Hockey 101. Matt Tkachuk, God love his game, has not passed that class quite yet.