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TKACHUK EMERGING AS ONE OF NHL's TOP ROOKIES

George Johnson takes a look at why the 19-year-old should be in the Calder conversation

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH / CalgaryFlames.com

CALGARY, AB -- If you can look past the sequins and sparkle for a moment, beyond the tinsel and trappings, the bright, shiny baubles and bangles …

"Those guys you mentioned - Matthews, Marner, Laine - they're all great young players,'' agrees Chad Johnson.

"Goals, flash, glitz, that's how you draw attention, win awards and get paid. It's all about that. That's how things work. People love that stuff.

"Hey, I love that stuff.

"But Chucky should get equal recognition for the value he brings. And the variation. What he brings is maybe different but just as valuable, just as effective, as what those other guys do."

Yes, it's high time Matthew Tkachuk started receiving some Calder Trophy love.

Consider Wednesday another prime example.

A goal, a helper and doling out enough irritation to the San Jose Sharks that a warehouse clearance of balms and creams couldn't alleviate as the Calgary Flames toppled the Pacific Division's top team.

And he had the chutzpah to steal the stick of Norris Trophy candidate Brent Burns and lug it onto the Flames' bench in the bargain.

About the only person in this town not unabashedly promoting Matthew Tkachuk as a viable Calder candidate is, well, Matthew Tkachuk himself.

"I haven't done nearly enough to be in the same category as guys like Matthews, Laine, Weresnki,'' he argues. "Marner's having a real good year, too.

"I don't think about that stuff. As long as I can be a big part of this team, I can contribute, that's enough for me.

"Self-confidence is all I need. I don't need people patting me on the back."

No matter. Others are more than ready to pump the kid's whitewalls.

"He's 19,'' marvels assistant coach Martin Gelinas with a shot shake of the head. "When I was 19, I was like 'Defence? Defence? What's defence?'

"This guy plays defence.

"He gets in the dirty areas. He battles with defencemen 30, 35 years old with a lot of experience. And what's probably most overlooked, he's got a really, really high hockey IQ.

"You tell him something once, it sticks."

Right now, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have the Toronto media machine solidly behind them. Zach Werenski's playing for the league's surprise package, the Columbus Blue Jackets, which elicits a fair amount of attention.

Yet there is an upset precedent.

Back in 1986, Wendel Clark of the Leafs was the prohibitive favourite to cop the Calder but in the end, Flames' super rookie defenceman Gary Suter beat Clark to the prize.

The 21 goals of Matthews and Marner are undeniably eye-catching. Laine's improvisational skills are breathtaking.

Yet Tkachuk ranks fourth in rookie points and second in freshman assists, is a scandalously-good plus-10 and his collaboration alongside right winger Michael Frolik and pivot Mikael Backlund has helped piggyback the Flames back into the playoff frame.

"He's not scared,'' praises Frolik. "Everybody can see that. I remember my first year. It's a big jump and sometimes you're like 'Whoa!'

"Not Chucky.

"What those others, Matthews and those guys, can do is very impressive. They can lift people out of their seats.

"But Chucky's been hot lately.

"They're different kinds of players than him. So maybe he's been a little bit in the shadows. But it's a long season. I can't see him slowing down, the way he plays.

"So we'll see."

Among his teammates - everywhere across the 403 area code as a matter of fact - he's now simply Chucky, the Star-Spangled kid, the brash teenager with the teapot-spout mouthguard drooping between clenched teeth who is playing at a level beyond his years.

Among a growing number of NHL opponents, conversely, he's becoming known as Chucky, an irritating hockey offshoot of that mayhem-and-mischief doll in the Child's Play horror film franchise.

Make no mistake, Matthew Tkachuk's nemeses are growing by the game, by the day. 

And Flames fans are loving it.

"He always goes to the net hard, is in the middle of all those little scrums,'' says Frolik. "Strong on the puck, along the wall, good in the corners.

"He's a pretty solid kid for his age.

"You need guys like that. We're happy he's on our team and we don't have to play against him.

"At the start of the year maybe it was a little too much and he was taking some bad penalties. I think he's better at it now, knows he has to be a little careful, too. And he's still drawing a lot of penalties.

"He can still do that job, p--- guys off, without going over the line."

"I haven't watched those other players in the running a lot,'' admits Flames' coach Glen Gulutzan of the 2016-17 rookie crop. "But I can comment that for a young player in the league, Matthew really does a lot of good things.

"The way he plays two-way hockey, plays in the guts of the game, is impressive. He's not the flashiest but at the end of the day, it's about getting the job done, right?

"The one thing about Chucky: He's not a dirty player. He's just a competitive player. When you compete that much, you're going to get rolling around in the mud with people.

"That's what he does. He's not afraid to do it. We told all our guys that: We'd like to see them all rolling around at some point this year because it means you're competing.

"He just does it most shifts."

In Johnson's opinion what sets Tkachuk apart is the variety of his contribution.

"When a guy is good at everything, he tends to find himself overshadowed,'' argues the goaltender. "If Chucky just had dangles or the big shot, everybody would be jumping up and down like 'Oh, my God. This guy is unbelievable.'

"If you're really, really good at one thing, that draws attention. But over-all, I think when you're really good at everything, nothing seems to stand out.

"There's nothing to … grab onto. He's just good.

"I love watching him play.

"You don't see many players who play as gritty as Chucky with that kind of skill.

"And he is skilled. Very skilled."

So, go on, ogle Austen, if you must. It's fully justified.

Wax lyrical about Laine - now, sadly, out of commission dealing with concussion protocol - or market Marner.

All are worthy Calder Trophy candidates.

Just never lose sight of the fearless, ferocious 19-year-old No. 19 amidst all the sequins and sparkle, the tinsel and trappings.

"In the (Calder) conversation?'' reckons Gelinas. "Absolutely he should be.

"This is a special player. To see someone his age make the jump, and be accountable it in all areas of the game, is impressive, believe me.

"The transition from junior to the NHL isn't easy, by any means.

"But for him, it's been …"

Child's play, one could say.

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