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Behind The Numbers

Matthew Tkachuk making case for Calder Trophy

Rookie's grit, puck-possession numbers helping Flames make playoff push

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

The Phoenix Coyotes played their first game in 1996-97. Twenty years later, two players who grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, made their NHL debut: center Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and forward Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames.

Goal scoring has helped Matthews establish himself as the favorite in the Calder Trophy race as the NHL's best rookie, but a closer look at the underlying numbers reveals Tkachuk deserves recognition for his equally impressive display of playmaking and gritty, possession-oriented hockey.

At a high level, there are a lot of similarities between Matthews and Tkachuk. Each is 19 and each is from Scottsdale, although Tkachuk moved to St. Louis at age 3 after his father, Keith Tkachuk, was traded to the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 25, 2007.

Matthews and Tkachuk each played for the U.S. National Under-18 Team in 2014-15, and each was selected in the 2016 NHL Draft. Matthews was picked No. 1 by the Maple Leafs; Tkachuk went to the Flames at No. 6.

Each is having an excellent rookie season and playing a key role in helping his team fight its way back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

However, that's where the comparison ends. Matthews is being used on Toronto's top scoring line, and Tkachuk has been deployed on Calgary's top checking line. He's recognized more for his grit than his goal-scoring, and his shot-based metrics are among the best in the NHL.

For all but the first few games of the season, Tkachuk has been playing on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik; they've been charged with taking on Calgary's top opponents in the defensive zone and in lead-protecting situations.

Video: SJS@CGY: Tkachuk deflects Backlund's shot in for PPG

At even strength, Tkachuk has lined up for 110 faceoffs in the offensive zone and 208 in the defensive zone, for a zone start percentage of .346 that ranks as the 34th-lowest of the 650 players with at least 10 games played. In contrast, Matthews has a zone start percentage of .594, which ranks as the 80th-highest.

Exceptional grit is one of the reasons Tkachuk is trusted by Flames coach Glen Gulutzan with such a difficult assignment for a rookie. Tkachuk already has developed a reputation as someone who isn't afraid of going into the corners and winning critical puck battles, and the numbers back that up.

Tkachuk ranks third in the NHL in penalty minutes with 76, and in minor penalties taken per 60 minutes with 2.82 (minimum 10 games). But he draws even more penalties than he takes: Tkachuk leads the NHL with 2.93 penalties drawn per 60 minutes, which makes his style of play an overall net positive for Calgary.

Typically, playing tough minutes against top opponents in the defensive zone will affect a player's shot-based metrics, but Tkachuk has the best numbers on the Flames.

At even strength, Calgary has a 529-392 edge in shot attempts when Tkachuk is on the ice; his team-best SAT of plus-137 is 13th-best in the NHL. In more advantageous playing conditions, Matthews ranks third on the Maple Leafs with plus-56.

Using more traditional goal-based statistics, Tkachuk leads the Flames at plus-10, one behind the lead among rookies, held by Anthony Mantha of the Detroit Red Wings. Matthews is tied for fourth on the Maple Leafs at plus-4.

With 35 points (21 goals, 14 assists) in 39 games, Matthews has the edge on Tkachuk, who has 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) in 40 games in scoring, but not by that wide of a margin when all things are considered. Even though his line plays the tough minutes so teammates Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett have more opportunities to score, Tkachuk is finding ways to contribute offensively.

Video: ARI@CGY: Tkachuk scores from an impossible angle

At even strength, Tkachuk leads the Flames with 20 points. That's four behind Matthews and ranks fourth among rookies.

In all manpower situations, Tkachuk leads the Flames with 19 assists, tied for second among rookies behind Mitchell Marner of the Maple Leafs (22) and ahead of Matthews (14).

Tkachuk's 27 points are tied with Gaudreau for second on the Flames behind Backlund (29) and ranks fourth among rookies.

When the Coyotes first took the ice on Oct. 5, 1996, who would have guessed two locally born players would be in competition for the Calder Trophy 20 years later?

Matthews may have the edge with his 21 goals, but Tkachuk has been a more effective playmaker, is handling a tougher defensive assignment, has better shot-based metrics, and is the best in the League at drawing penalties. Add those up, and they could be enough for Tkachuk to become a factor in the Calder race.

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