The 2016 NHL rookie class has been heralded as one of the most skilled group of rookies in many years. Foremost in the minds of pundits and fans alike are Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, who were drafted first and second overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets, respectively.
As expected, Laine and Matthews are the top two scoring first-year players this season, followed by Toronto rookies Mitch Marner and William Nylander to round out the top four.
In their shadow, however, skates a teenager that is in the midst of what may end up being an historic rookie season. In fact, not many players in the last decade have done what Calgary Flames’ prized rookie Matthew Tkachuk has accomplished thus far in his inaugural NHL season.
Tkachuk, drafted sixth overall by Calgary in 2016, made the Flames’ roster right out of training camp and hasn’t looked back. Through his first 38 games in the NHL, the fresh-faced American has recorded seven goals and 18 assists, totaling 25 points, which places him fifth in rookie scoring.
But what truly sets this teenage standout apart from his fellow freshman are his possession numbers.
Tkachuk leads the Flames in Corsi-For Percentage (CF%) — a statistic used to measure and compare, by ratio, the number of shot attempts (shots on goal, shots wide and shots blocked) on either end of the ice. Tkachuk’s CF% this season is 58%, meaning that when he is on the ice, the majority of the shot attempts are taken by the Flames. In this regard, he is actually ahead of Flames’ star forwards Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett.
Tkachuk’s CF% leads all rookies in the NHL; including Matthews, Laine, Marner and Nylander. More impressively, he currently ranks fifth in the entire league in this category, making him the only rookie to place in the top 10. Since 2010, only three rookies have finished the season in the top 10 in CF%; Mats Zuccarello in 2011, Tyler Toffoli in 2014 and Conor Sheary in 2016.
In a similar category, Fenwick-For% (FF%), which measures shots on goal and shots wide of the net—not including blocked shots—Tkachuk also leads all rookies with 57.7%. This statistic is a more refined expression of CF%, as it takes shot-blocking into consideration as a skill, which could thus be seen as a contaminant to the percentage. In most cases, a player’s CF% and FF% will be near identical. However, when the numbers deviate, red flags arise in the quality of a player’s shot—a large deviation would imply that said shots are easily defended. Tkachuk’s 57.7 FF% implies that the majority of his shots get through traffic, be it wide or on net, making him that much more of a dangerous shooter.
Players that drive puck possession and produce offense at the rate Tkachuk has thus far generally spend most of their time in the offensive zone. Calgary’s rookie winger, however, starts 65.6% of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Suffice it to say that offensively gifted skaters often have an Offensive Zone-Start% (oZS%) higher than 50%. For instance, last year’s Rookie of the Year, Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin, has proven to be one of the most skilled offensive players in the NHL. This season, he has the highest oZS% of any forward in the NHL at 84.16%.
Meanwhile, Tkachuk’s 65.6 Defensive Zone-Start% (dZS%) is the highest among rookies with at least 35 games played. Since 2010, no first-year player that has finished in the top five in dZS% has ever also finished in the top five in possession metrics such as CF% or FF%. To this point in the season, Tkachuk is first among NHL Freshmen in all three categories, underscoring his impressive two-way play.
Although the overwhelming majority of his zone starts take place in the defensive zone, Tkachuk’s line has been able to not only control the puck, but take the majority of the game’s shots when they’re in play. Not often is a teenager entrusted to play such important minutes in the defensive zone. Tkachuk and his linemates have seized the opportunity by showing the ability to not only suppress opposing shots, but by being able to retrieve the puck in their own end and create offense down the ice.
Tkachuk currently flanks Calgary’s second line with right wing Michael Frolik, and center Mikael Grandlund — neither of whom are considered to be offensively-gifted linemates. In being teamed with Tkachuk, however, these veteran forwards have found their scoring touch.
Grandlund has 31 points in 38 games putting him on pace for a 67 point season in an 82-game schedule. Meanwhile, Frolik has 24 points in 41 games, which would put him on pace to tally 48 points by the end of the season. Neither forward has ever scored more than 45 points in a season. However, with Tkachuk on the wing, both veterans are on their way to the best statistical season either has ever had.
Most importantly, it’s evident that head coach Glen Gulutzan has enough faith in Tkachuk to play responsibly in defensive situations. The kid has been bestowed with the burden of shifting the flow of transition to a more offensively favorable one. It’s a rare trait to be found in rookies, especially highly-skilled forwards that are anxious to play offense. It speaks volumes about Tkachuk’s maturity as a hockey player. But he’s still a kid, so he’ll have plenty of moments like this one, where he snagged Brent Burns’ stick and took it to the bench with him.
That said, young winger’s future is as bright as they come. He’s making his mark in one of the most highly-skilled rookie classes of all-time. He may surprise now, but won’t be in anyone’s shadow for very long.
[Featured Image: SI]