Technically, Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher may still be using pencil when scribbling the name Brady Tkachuk into a top-six slot on his probable opening night roster, but he’s pressing so hard, it might be impossible to erase.
“You never want to say somebody’s spot is already there, but he has been very solid — and that’s the truth,” Boucher says. “From now on, he’s got to earn the rest. But has he started well? Absolutely.”
Ask any coach or veteran who roams Senators headquarters about their freshest first-round draft choice, a key piece to the organization’s loudly touted rebuild, and you’ll be bombarded with overtures about the giant kid’s professionalism, work ethic, positive attitude, and unique skill set.
“Is he even 19 yet?” wonders projected linemate Mark Stone. (As of Sunday, yes.)
Stone, the club’s de facto captain in wake of the Erik Karlsson trade, joined leaders Matt Duchene and Mark Borowiecki in immediately reaching out and welcome Tkachuk into the fold after he fell to the team at No. 4 on draft night. Stone has gone out to dinner with the teenager a few times and invited Keith’s son over to his place last week before training camp opened.
“You understand that he comes from a great family. He was raised the right way. He’s very respectful and understanding of what he’s doing right now. He knows he needs to earn his spot, and it makes him more energized,” Stone says.
“You’re gonna notice Brady Tkachuk because he plays hard, he plays fast, and he plays the right way.”
Chalk it up to winning the gene lottery if you will, but Tkachuk’s makeup is as much nurture as it is nature.
“He comes from an environment that taught him how to be a pro,” Boucher states. “That’s the reason why he was drafted that high.”
Like older brother Matthew and his dad, American hockey great Keith, there is a fire raging within the youngest Tkachuk, but it’s a controlled burn.
Tkachuk is one of the first Sens to arrive at the rink and last to leave every day, the kid interviews like a man who already has the job, and he blew away spectators with his dominant, two-goal performance versus the Canadiens at the rookie showcase in Laval earlier this month.
That exhibition came on the heels of a summer bunking with Matthew in Aurora, Ont., where the rival siblings trained alongside the likes of Steven Stamkos and Connor McDavid under fitness master Gary Roberts. Roberts helped convert Tkachuk from picky eater to a nutrition freak, mostly.
“I’ve got a sweet tooth,” he confesses. “Once in a while I have a couple hiccups. Chocolate gets me.”
At six-foot-three and 193 pounds, Tkachuck has been billed as a nastier version of Calgary’s Matthew, and while picking his brain during a recent 15-minute sit-down, we were taken aback by his confidence and sincerity.
When we suggest that the Senators’ trading away of core pieces should bode well for his ice time, Tkachuck grabs the conversation by the collar.
“The first thing I’m going to say is, I don’t think everybody is giving this team and this organization enough credit. We have a lot better team than people think. We’re going to surprise some people and be a force in this league,” he asserts, not at all sounding like a kid still looking to make his pro debut.
“I felt this was the perfect opportunity and moment to come in. I feel like I’m ready, I’ll get better throughout the year, and I’m going to make an impact right away.”
So, you’re OK to leap from college to a top-six role?
“I’ll do everything in my power,” Tkachuck says. “If that’s where they put me, I feel like I’m ready for it.”
Whether that means producing points (Tkachuk put up 31 in 40 games as a freshman at Boston University), crawling under opponents’ skin (“I have been a talker in the past,” he says), or even dropping the gloves, Tkachuk is game. He says he has no worries ditching the cage, required face protection for NCAA players.
“I’ll make sure it’s not, like, [Ryan] Reaves, but I’ve fought before and I’m not scared of that. It’s part of my family, and it’s part of the game. If it happens, I’m ready for it,” Tkachuk says.
“I’m not going to take a backseat to anybody. I don’t care how old they are. All I care about is the guys in the dressing room. I’m going to be who I am and play how I always have.”
— Steve LaPrade (@stevelaprade) September 9, 2018
Even though Ottawa wanted him right away, Tkachuck delayed until Aug. 13 to sign his entry-level deal as he weighed the pros and cons of returning for another winter of development with his friends at BU. He discussed the “difficult decision” with every member of his family, who said they’d back him unconditionally. He surveyed friends in Boston, back home in St. Louis, and used Vancouver draftee Quinn Hughes — who did opt for another college season — as a sounding board.
“We were definitely part of each other’s decisions. It was nice to have him to lean on,” Tkachuck says. “He’s going to come into this league and be a dominant impact player. I’m super happy for Quinn.”
Ultimately, though, Tkachuck believed his dream was too close not to snatch it.
Because of petulant personnel like Tkachuk, Boucher plans to deploy less of a passive, trapping defence in favour of a more aggressive forecheck. Placing Tkachuk, for now, on a line with respected veterans and glue guys Stone and Zack Smith is also by design.
“I want him surrounded by leaders,” Boucher says. “They’ve made the kid breathe a little bit. That’s what I was looking for.”
Recognizing Tkachuck’s brash side, Stone says this: “You need to be confident or things will spiral outward. At the same time, when you’re that age, you’ll have times when you’re not so confident. That’s when you need to lean on guys who have experience to help you through that process.”
A detail lost in the emotions of the Karlsson trade is that one of the prospects brought over from San Jose is Michigan’s Josh Norris, one of Tkachuck’s closest friends and a former U.S. national program teammate. Norris excitedly texted Tkachuk before the press release went out.
“He’s super pumped,” Tkachuck beams.
As reluctant as Sens fans may be to feel the same way this October, if Tkachuk can live up to his own expectations, they too have reason to get pumped.
“To be here in Ottawa for the whole year, I feel like I’m mentally ready and physically ready for the challenge,” Tkachuck says.
“For me, it’s not just making it but making an impact.”