“He’s a pretty dirty player, that kid. To be a rookie and play like that is a little surprising.” — Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, on Matthew Tkachuk.
“I love it,” Theo Fleury was saying Tuesday afternoon, picking up the phone to chat about a young Calgary Flame that has opponents all hot and bothered about his respect for both the rule book and “The Code” that players are supposed to adhere to.
Tkachuk, a 19-year-old rookie, fed Canadian Olympian Doughty a vicious elbow Sunday night in Calgary, for which he was suspended two games by the department of player safety.
Fleury could only laugh: “I would be broke making $8 million a year if I were playing in the league now. I’d be suspended all the time.”
“Johnny Gaudreau needs to take a lesson from him,” Fleury added. “Johnny can be neutralized because of his size. If he were a little meaner with his stick and elbows, he might get a little more room out there.”
“There are two referees on the ice, and 400 cameras. There are none of those kinds of jabs, the things that make people think when they’re on the ice,” he said, somewhat ruefully.
The teenaged Tkachuk has played 68 NHL games and has already amassed 46 points and 96 penalty minutes. He’ll almost certainly be a 50-point, 100-PIM player as a 19-year-old, which bodes well for a few years down the road when 6-foot-1 195-pound boy turns into a 6-foot-1, 215-pound man.
Did he cross the line with a couple of slew-foots this season, and the elbow to Doughty? Whatever, says Fleury. It’s an investment that will pay off down the road.
“He’s smart,” Fleury — who had 46 PIMs and 34 points in 36 games as a Flames rookie in 1988-89 — said of Tkachuk. “What he did the other night was, he sent a message to the entire league. Yeah, it cost him two games, but I’m sure it will benefit him down the road.
“The more room you get on the ice, the more you have to do the things you do best. By creating some unpredictability, you get more room.”
His suspension cost Tkachuk $10,277.78. Score 25 goals the next two seasons, and he’ll be leaving tips that size once he signs his second contract.
“What made me as good as I was is, I was unpredictable,” said Fleury, who learned in junior that the best defence was a strong offence. “When I was 16 we went up to Prince Albert (Sask.), one of my first games in the Western Hockey League. I think I was 5-foot-2, 5-foot-3. Maybe 125 pounds soaking wet.
“That night, Dave Manson hit me so hard I thought I broke every bone in my body. I said to myself, ‘That can never happen again.’ I got smart real quick. And if someone was going to hit me, they were going to have to come through my stick or my elbow.”
This, we know for sure: On any given opposing roster there are players who will be scared to play Tkachuk physically. Players who would stand in Gaudreau’s way, but will opt for the poke check when Tkachuk has the puck.
That’s good for Tkachuk, and his teammates.
“What goes unnoticed is the impact he has had on Mikael Backlund, who should win the Selke this season. Who goes in the corner, gets the pucks and has a physical presence on that line?” asked Fleury. “And (Michael) Frolik has nearly 20 goals (16 this season). Him and Backlund played together last year. Why is it different now?”
As for the respect level, we wonder what is left of “The Code” anyhow? One veteran defenceman told me this week that Tkachuk was out of line taking that shot at a player like Doughty, but for some players, that willingness to take on any and all comers is what makes them special.
There are 29 other fan bases that would welcome Keith’s boy into their team’s uniform with open arms, while in Calgary, they’ve finally got someone who is pushing the right buttons.
All this should bode well for the Battle of Alberta, which hasn’t had a good heel for some many years. “The Oilers are big now. They’re not small anymore,” noted Fleury. “A guy like Matthew Tkachuk can win you a series.”
A good rivalry needs villains.
Whether he likes it or not, Tkachuk just fitted himself for a big, black Stetson.