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Rookie sensation aims to elevate his game even further and help Flames make a deep playoff run

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

One of Matthew Tkachuk's avowed commandments is never - but never  - allow the opposition to be at ease.

So why on earth should he?

"You have to have that fear in the back of your mind if you don't play well you're not going to be on the team,'' proclaimed the massively-popular left-winger Tuesday morning, awaiting the start of the Flames Celebrity Charity Golf Classic out at Country Hills Golf Club.

"I think everybody through the whole lineup has to have that feeling.

"If you don't, if you get comfortable or satisfied where you are, that's when you're not playing your best and you're hurting the team."

Only a year ago - remember? - Tkachuk was a gifted 18-year-old, a high-pick curiosity armed with an unmistakable air of self-confidence, a superb junior resume, a wandering mouthpiece and good NHL bloodlines. 

Which assures absolutely nothing at the professional level.

Well, times they have a-changed.

Through an attention-grabbing, 48-point, 105-PIM freshman campaign, the London Knights' junior sensation gained a deserved reputation around the NHL as a grating, distracting difference-maker.

A vital part of the ultra-consistent 3M Line alongside Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund, Tkachuk played a significant role in the Flames advancing to the 2016 post-season following a one-year absence.

The hasty post-season exit courtesy the Anaheim Ducks still seems stuck in his craw, though.

"It was pretty long,'' grumbled Tkachuk, when asked how his summer had gone. "That's obviously not how you want it to be."

No less an authority on the villainous hero role, Flame icon Theo Fleury praised the kid's chutzpah during his rookie turn, saying:

"We're in the entertainment business. He entertains.

"Every time he's on the ice, something happens. Good or bad, but never indifferent.

"You can't help but watch him. He's always involved. Do I see some of myself in him? No question. He knows how far to push things."

The season just passed provided Tkachuk with the self-belief that he belonged at the game's highest level (if it was ever, in fact, lacking).

Now there is an irreplaceable sense of belonging, of possibilities, about him.

"I think it was a little bit different last year," he said. "There were a lot of new pieces, new surroundings for me, the coaching staff,'' he reasoned. "I think everybody's a little more comfortable in the sense of knowing what you're getting yourself into, what you're dealing with. The coaching staff. The system. All that stuff.

"And I think this year, in the back of our heads … I know me personally, we have to get off to a better start. I know have to get off to a better start. And we go from there.

"We had some great stretches last year and some not-so-great stretches. So I think it's about balancing those this year and ultimately eliminating the bad ones."

Spotting Sam Bennett standing around, waiting patiently for his turn in the interview queue, Tkachuk took in the newly-signed centreman's daring bearded look, and grimaced.

"Awful …," he teased. "It looks like the guy in Goon II."

Well, maybe Tkachuk doesn't advise anyone getting too comfortable, but there is certainly a comfort level about him now that should only yield even better things ahead.

During this off-season, of course, Flames' GM Brad Treliving supervised a rich harvest of incoming talent and managed to get all the vital pieces that needed consolidating. 

So this 'go-round, the bar has been raised, substantially.

 On Tkachuk.

On everyone.

"Making the moves, where the team stands now, I think they believe in us,'' he said, unafraid of the high outlook.

"It gives you confidence that management and the coaching staff believe this is a time you could win."

Video: Highlights from the rookie phenom's 1st NHL campaign



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