TORONTO — Early in the afternoon on Monday, Matthew Tkachuk couldn’t stop smiling.
Surrounded by hordes of local hockey writers hours ahead of his first NHL game in Toronto, the 19-year old held his own in a long scrum and did so with a grin on his face. Perhaps it was his play of late that kept him smiling; since Nov. 15, when he returned from a hand injury, the 2016 No. 6 overall pick is third in rookie scoring.
Or perhaps his smile was one born of familiarity. On Monday night Tkachuk faced off against two old friends, who found out long before the rest of the NHL did what kind of player Tkachuk could be.
And it just so happens it’s those players who occupy the first and second spots in that aforementioned rookie scoring race: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Tkachuk spent the 2014–15 season with the U.S. National Under-18 team alongside Matthews before moving to the CHL Memorial Cup-winning London Knights, where he formed an indomitable line with Marner.
Monday served as a reunion of sorts, with three of the league’s most exciting rookies in a dynamic first-year class facing off. The three haven’t stopped following each other in their first seasons, and Tkachuk even smiled when thinking of the havoc his former teammate is wreaking upon the NHL.
“It’s fun keeping tabs on him, seeing him on TSN and Sportsnet,” Tkachuk said of Matthews. “Every night I look he’s doing something special.”
But according to Marner, who watched Tkachuk score the Memorial Cup-winning goal in overtime less than a year ago, playing against his former teammate isn’t exactly “fun,” as it were.
“He’s obviously got a lot of skill and he plays hard,” said Marner. “He’s always in people’s faces. When you can do both, it’s pretty annoying to play against. It’s usually just one of those things ... he does it very well and he’s very sneaky with it as well. I think it’s just the fact that people just don’t like the feeling of him always around them.”
Marner did well enough around Tkachuk in the first period Monday night, tipping in a Nikita Zaitsev point shot with Tkachuk nearby to open the scoring. Tkachuk would go on to exert his physical presence when he was matched up against Marner on a second-period shift, boxing him out on a faceoff and tangling him up against the boards.
Tkachuk leads all rookies in penalty minutes (92) and, frankly, it’s not even close. He’s also second in the league in PIM. But it’s the manner in which Tkachuk has so adeptly blended a pesky, physical style of play with an ability to drive the Flames' play (Tkachuk leads the team with a 57.9% Corsi For, per Corsica.hockey) early in his NHL career that’s turning heads.
When drafted, it was obvious from his junior hockey pedigree and his family lineage that Tkachuk could eventually be an impact player in the NHL. But this soon? Even Tkachuk himself couldn’t expect to be in this position so early.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming because I’d never played in it before,” Tkachuk said when asked whether or not he expected to have the kind of impact he’s had. “I guess I’m kind of happy where I’m at right now. I have another gear to go to ... You’re just getting your feet wet in the NHL.”
Tkachuk would go on to give credit to his linemates, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, for his strong play. Putting the team ahead of himself in the company of reporters is just another sign that Tkachuk has quickly acclimatized to the NHL.
He’s looked like the consummate pest through his first 46 games, including getting under the skin of Hart Trophy candidate Brent Burns by stealing his stick earlier in the season.
“Me, I don’t want to go out there and try to say anything to get them off their game,” Tkachuk said before Monday's game. “I just want to play the best I can. Our team needs this win pretty bad.”
But against his old friends and teammates, that win did not come for Tkachuk and the Flames. The Leafs used their now trademark speed to break down the Flames for a 4–0 result as Calgary once again failed to get the early jump it needed. Marner bested Tkachuk with a goal and an assist.
Tkachuk did his part with two penalty minutes, four shots and three hits. It was certainly more of an impact than he made when the two teams faced off back in November, when Tkachuk registered just one shot and saw a full two minutes less of ice time.
While the much-needed two points escaped the Flames, there are still many reasons for them to smile. Namely, Tkachuk has shown that just over half a season into what could be a long NHL career, he’s already making a name for himself. And when he faces off against Marner and Matthews again next season, you can bet he’ll be looking to settle the score.