Intelligent Matthew Tkachuk ‘plays in the guts of the game’

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie tee up tonight's matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames, pointing out that the two Canadian clubs are facing very different issues at this point in the season.

TORONTO – The most notable attribute that comes to mind when you think of Matthew Tkachuk is not the same one those close to the player, close to the game are thinking of.

In a span of nine days last month, the Calgary Flames left winger was both suspended and drew a suspension.

The fiery eldest son U.S. hockey icon Keith Tkachuk sparked a November line brawl by delivering a light whack to the leg of Red Wings tough guy Luke Witkowski, who was being escorted toward the tunnel by a linesman after a scrap. Tkachuk was slapped with a one-game ban for his needling action, his second dose of supplementary discipline in an NHL career only 14 months old.

Five games later, Tkachuk weaseled around the Colorado net enough that Gabriel Landeskog felt it necessary to unnecessarily cross-check the 19-year-old flush in the left side of his face. The Avalanche captain got four games for his actions.

To steal a phrase from Tkachuk’s proud coach, Glen Gulutzan, the player makes his living in the trenches—but do not mistake him for careless or reckless.

“He is a pest, and he plays better that way,” Gulutzan says. “But this is a highly intelligent player. He plays in the guts of the game.”

Dig in the corners, and intelligence is an adjective you’ll hear tied to the Flames super sophomore more often than annoying or rugged or whatever brush you want to paint the hockey player who doesn’t back down from the type of antagonistic behaviour fans hope to see when they tune into Wednesday’s game versus the Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto crash-and-bang winger Leo Komarov said Tkachuk reminds him of younger Uncle Leo, but Leafs coach Mike Babcock is quick discard that parallel.

“Leo, that’s his job. To play in the league and stay in the league, he’s got to be heavy all the time,” Babcock says. “To me, Tkachuk’s greatest asset is his ability at the net and his playmaking. He’s a huge talent, a heavy body, makes great plays, and is a determined guy.”

Unlike, say, Nazem Kadri, who openly talks about he thrives on nights that turn nasty, Tkachuk downplays the pestering aspect of his repertoire when holding court.

“I just play the way I’ve always played. That’s mixing the offensive game with playing hard. Sometimes tempers get high,” Tkachuk says. “I was taught at a young age you have to play hard every shift.”

Speaking to Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup Wednesday morning, father Keith described young Matthew as the perfect puck protégé.

“Instead of wanting to go out, he wanted to stay home and watch hockey,” said Keith, who would push his boy to take notes on Pavel Datsyuk’s worth ethic.

Nothing’s changed. Matthew began school studying the positioning and tendencies of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. As he grew older, he loved examining Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Wayne Simmonds. Any “big, offensive players who play a powerful game” catch his eye. When he’s not playing himself, he’s dialled in around the league, happy to chat about L.A.’s grit, Detroit’s underrated speed, or Toronto’s skill.

“Being in Calgary, it’s nice because the first game starts at 5 and the last one ends at 11, so I’m watching hockey all night,” Tkachuk says.

The constant observation has improved his defensive abilities, and allowed Tkachuk to play a prominent role on Calgary’s shutdown line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, while still producing 17 points through 24 games. Despite matching against the opposition’s best forwards, Tkachuk’s possession numbers (57 per cent five-on-five) are remarkable for a teenager.

“He was always a very intelligent hockey player. It’s his mind that has really propelled him to the player he’s developing into right now,” Keith said. “You can tell the kids who watch [hockey] and the kids who don’t, just the way they play, how they see the game and make plays.”

Yes, Tkachuk is bigger, stronger and faster than he was during his 48-point, 105-PIM rookie campaign, Gulutzan says, but it’s his thought process that’s most impressive.

“From the day he got into the league, he’s been solid on mental side,” says Gulutzan, who wouldn’t mind seeing some of Tkachuk’s resolve rub off on his teammates. “I would like to see some more energy within our group in the game within the game.”

Tkachuk’s twice-a-year matchups with Toronto always fire up the comparisons to another 1997-born American star. Auston Matthews and Tkachuk spent two years fighting the same battles as part of the U.S. National Team Development Program.

Matthews, whom we swear will win a Lady Byng one day, has a grand total of 16 career NHL penalty minutes. Tkachuk, whom we swear will never win one, is capable of 16 PIMs on a good night. They know each other well, and the headiness of their approaches is similar yet oh so different.

“He’s a pest, but he also brings a lot of skill to his game, a lot of grit. He can make plays all over the ice, in front of the net. He’s not afraid to go to the net, and you see him capitalize on that,” Matthews explains.

“He’s good down low. He’s a big body. He complements that with being a guy who gets under your skin as well.”

Tkachuk has even tried to spread his love of watching hockey to Matthews, not-so-subtly suggesting the Leafs’ leading scorer take in a few more Tkachuk highlights.

“He’s kind of the notorious one for saving his highlights on his phone. He’s funny,” Matthews says.

“He saves a lot of those and he’ll send them like random times throughout the year, and you’re just like: ‘What do you want? I just want to play the game.’”