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Tkachuk becomes complete player for Flames, headed to NHL All-Star Game

Grows from pest to clutch scorer, will represent Calgary in St. Louis

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

CALGARY -- Matthew Tkachuk is many things to many people.

Agitator, enemy, scorer, leader, teammate, and now all-star.

The Calgary Flames forward, in his fourth NHL season, was named to the Pacific Division team for the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Jan. 25.

His first NHL All-Star Game selection is a recognition of his evolution from notorious pest to complete player.

"I think he really understands now what impact he has on the team," said defenseman Mark Giordano, who will also represent the Flames in St. Louis. "Especially this year, he's learned when he needs to ride that fine line. He's proven he's pretty clutch, that he can be the guy counted on in those big moments. Hopefully that continues. For sure he knows when to push buttons and when not to on the ice."

The 22-year-old, who signed a three-year, $21 million contract on Sept. 25, has 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 45 games and plays regularly on one of the Flames' top two lines. He had an NHL career-high 77 points (34 goals, 43 assists) in 80 games last season.

But when the No. 6 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft started playing for the Flames in the 2016-17 season, he was known for irritating and distracting opponents, not for scoring against them. He had 105 penalty minutes his rookie season, ranking 11th in League, but led the Flames and all NHL rookies.

Video: CGY@EDM: Mangiapane sets up Tkachuk in front

Flames goalie Cam Talbot saw it from the other side for three seasons playing for the rival Edmonton Oilers.

"When you play against him, you think he's a rat out there … that he's always going to poke and prod the best players on the other team but he's never going to answer the bell," Talbot said. "Then you come here and realize there's a method to his madness … that he's a good guy and one of those guys that you love to have on your team but always hated to play against.

"He's definitely good at what he does, but I've got a lot more appreciation for the kind of skill level he brings as well. I always thought he was just a net-front guy and a little rat, but his skill set is really up there, and I didn't realize it until I got here."

Tkachuk, who was named a Flames alternate captain at the start of last season, said time in the NHL has helped him realize more balance in his game was necessary. He cut his penalty minutes to 61 in 2017-18, had 62 last season and has 34 this season. 

"It's just been growing pains," Tkachuk said. "This is my fourth year, and mostly it's been learning when to do it and not do it, honestly.

"I think I've probably learned you can't really play that way for 82 games. There are obviously times to do it, but you have to make sure you're on the ice and not in the penalty box, that you're playing hard and hard for your teammates. Maybe sometimes selfishly, if you want to do something, maybe stick up for yourself and maybe engage in something, you have to remember it's team first and you always have to have that in the back of your head."

Agitation, though, is not something Tkachuk should abandon, according to one of his biggest fans.

His father, Keith, played 18 seasons in the NHL for the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues and Atlanta Thrashers, and had 1,065 points (538 goals, 527 assists) in 1,201 regular-season games.

Video: CGY@DAL: Tkachuk snaps one by Bishop for PPG

Keith played in five NHL All-Star Games (1997, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009) and knows something about the blend of skill and confrontation. He had consecutive 50-goal seasons (50 in 1995-96, 52 in 1996-97) and 2,219 career penalty minutes, with 147 or more penalty minutes in each of his first seven full NHL seasons (1992-99).

"When you're young and you're making your [mark] coming into the League, you have to provide that and establish yourself as an NHLer who plays hard," he said. "A lot of people don't realize Matthew has a lot of puck skills, that he's savvy. His game [now] is not like it was his first two years. But I like the fact that he plays that way, that he's learning how to still provide that but not as much as he did before. The edge is still there."

When it comes to deploying that edge, often sticking one's nose where it's not usually welcomed, timing is everything, Keith said.

"He's smart now, smart when he does it, and that's part of the maturing process," he said. "I get [mad] when he doesn't do it. That's the way he's got to play, first year or veteran. It makes him play better. It's not going and doing something ridiculous. It's little things. 

"If he can go after and be hard on a guy ... he can take some heat off Johnny [Gaudreau] or [Sean Monahan], where that big, bad (former defenseman) Chris Pronger type is more interested in doing something to Matthew than he would be to those two. I don't think people understand that that's what he's trying to do. He's a team guy first. Things like that make him a valuable player on his team."

There is no better example of Tkachuk's skill and value this season than his game-winning goal against the Nashville Predators with 1.6 seconds remaining in overtime Oct. 31.

It was a bold move to decide to shoot the puck from between his legs from the slot and into the top corner over the right shoulder of Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. An Elias Lindholm shot attempt was blocked by Nashville's Matt Duchene and landed in front of Tkachuk, though not in an ideal spot.

"The puck just came to me in a position at the center of my body and I couldn't get my body around in time to make it a forehand or backhand, so I just decided to go with that," Tkachuk said. "It worked out, and I was pumped. I knew there wasn't much time and that I'd have to one-time it and that was the quickest way and the only way I was going to get a shot on net.

"I do it in practice every now and again, and I'll do it in warmups and occasionally in games. I do it enough that I can do it naturally."

That made his father laugh out loud.

"I've seen him do that as a kid and it used to drive me nuts if I'd see it in practice, but that's the new-age NHL," Keith said. "All these kids can do that. It's great for the game. I know in my prime, if I ever had one, that I couldn't ever do that. I would probably have fallen. It's impressive, as long as he doesn't go to the well too much with that."

Talbot said the play confirmed for him that Tkachuk's skills are underrated and all-star caliber.

"From where he was, how quickly the puck was coming to him, for him to have the wherewithal to pull it off, well, if I'm trying that, I'm probably pulling my groin," Talbot said. "For him to get it off with that kind of velocity, pick his spot and time on the clock, that's so impressive."

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