‘Junior hockey stuff’: Matthew Tkachuk suspended one game for spearing Leafs’ Matt Martin

 

 
 
 
 
Matthew Tkachuk  of the Calgary Flames battles with Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game on Dec. 6, 2017
 
 

Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames battles with Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game on Dec. 6, 2017

Photograph by: GETTY IMAGES

TORONTO — The pest likes to text.

Matthew Tkachuk, the shift-disturbing winger who earned a one-game suspension last month for inciting a line brawl against the Detroit Red Wings, uses slashes, spears and well-timed hits to get under the skin of opponents. But he tends to do his biggest damage with his smartphone.

Forget on-ice chirps. Those are so 1980. Instead, Tkachuk has been known for sending video clips of his past goals and hits to opponents as a way of reminding them what they might be in for.

Last week, the Calgary Flames forward texted a video to Zach Hyman of the time when Tkachuk caught the Maple Leafs forward with a hit several years ago during a college game. Another time, Toronto’s Auston Matthews was getting ready for a game when a text appeared of Tkachuk scoring a highlight-reel goal.

It was more cheeky than pesky.

“He’s a pest, but he also brings a lot of skill to his game,” Matthews said. “He complements that a lot with being a guy who likes to get under your skin as well.”

“If you play with him, you know how he is,” Toronto’s Mitch Marner said of Tkachuk, his former junior linemate with the London Knights. “He jokes around a lot and likes to have a lot of fun. But on the ice he’s a guy not a lot of people like.”

Only in his second NHL season, Tkachuk is quickly moving up on the NHL’s most-wanted lists of pests — a dubious honour that he added to in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Leafs on Monday night.

Whether he was on the ice or on the bench, Tkachuk managed to weasel his way into every scrum. A defining characteristic of a rat is its sneakiness. It’s not so much that you deliver a cheap shot, but that you do it while the officials are looking the other way.

Tkachuk, who turns 20 next week, already seems to have mastered this move.

In the first period, he reached over and speared Toronto’s Matt Martin in the mid-section while standing behind Calgary’s bench. He didn’t receive a penalty on the spear — it went unnoticed by on-ice officials — but he was suspended one game by the league and will forfeit US$11,280.49 in salary.

“I didn’t feel it at the time,” Martin said of the spear. “I guess if he’s going to do something like that, he should probably make it count. That’s child play.”

Said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock: “That’s junior hockey stuff. He’ll learn over time … No reason for that stuff.”

Tkachuk was at it again in the second period, when he drove the puck hard to the net and went feet first into goalie Frederik Andersen. Again, no penalty was called on the play, so Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner took matters into his own hands and cross-checked Tkachuk on the following shift.

The refs caught that one, which was another example of Tkachuk’s effectiveness in mastering a role that his coach said he was born to play.

“He is a pest. And he plays better that way,” Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan said. “But this is a highly intelligent player. He’s in the guts of the game. Since he’s been in this league, he’s been playing against the top players on a shutdown line and they’ve produced offensively.”

Not everything is going unnoticed. Tkachuk received a two-game suspension as a rookie last season for elbowing Drew Doughty and already has 29 penalty minutes in 27 games this season. But he has also drawn a league-most 18 penalties, been the target of two separate incidents that resulted in suspensions, and scored four goals and 17 points — so he’s making opponents pay in more ways than one.

In his mind, he’s not a pest. He’s just playing to win.

“I was taught at a young age that you have to play hard every shift,” said Tkachuk, whose father, former NHLer Keith Tkachuk, scored 52 goals while racking up 228 penalty minutes in 1996-97. “You have to give your best effort every single shift. Since I’ve been young, I’ve always liked scoring goals and producing offence. Just trying to mix trying to be an offensive threat every time you’re on the ice with playing a hard game.”

The dual ability to score and also get under an opponents’ skin is ultimately what makes Tkachuk, the sixth overall pick in 2016, so valuable. On its own, either skill is an asset in a league where NHL heavyweight enforcers are all but extinct. But combine the two and you have a player that could be the next Brad Marchand or Corey Perry — equally dangerous with or without the puck.

“Marchy’s world class,” Babcock said of the Bruins winger. “He’d be a real good player, whether he did that or not. But then you add that dimension and there’s no question about it he’s been a real pain in the butt and it makes it harder for you to play against because you know that you’ve got to keep your head up. Tkachuk’s biggest asset is his ability to get to the net. He’s a huge talent, heavy body, makes great plays and is a determined guy.”

With fewer fights in the league these days, it’s a wonder why more skilled players do not add a physical dimension to their games. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening. Playing the role of the rat is not exactly a dying art, but it is in short supply. And there is a reason for it, said Leo Komarov.

“It’s a lot of pressure when you have to be like that every game,” said the Leafs’ resident pest, who has an appreciation for what Tkachuk has been doing as a teenager in the league. “It’s not a lot of guys that can play hard like that. In that way, (Tkachuk’s) pretty impressive. But I don’t think you can play a lot like that either, you’re going to get hurt and it’s tough on the body also.”

As for his career goals, Tkachuk doesn’t want to spend his time on the sidelines serving suspensions. He has offensive skill, something he showed in junior with 107 points in 57 games with the Knights, and he plans on developing it. But don’t expect to go soft in the process.

“Since I’ve been younger, I’ve always liked watching big offensive players who play a powerful game who also play hard,” Tkachuk said. “Corey Perry is still one of the best at it. I played against Wayne Simmonds the other night and he’s probably one of the best at being around the net, like myself.”

He then added: “Sometimes tempers get hard I guess.”

Email: mtraikos@postmedia.com | Twitter:

 
 
 
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Matthew Tkachuk  of the Calgary Flames battles with Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game on Dec. 6, 2017
 

Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames battles with Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game on Dec. 6, 2017

Photograph by: GETTY IMAGES

 
Matthew Tkachuk  of the Calgary Flames battles with Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game on Dec. 6, 2017
The Flames' Matthew Tkachuk mixes it up with Edmonton defenceman Kris Russell on  Dec. 2, 2017.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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