As the Flames hit their mandated five day break, they’re in the mix for a playoff spot, and it looks to be a battle that will wage on until the last night of the season.
It’s a big improvement from last season where the Flames were nine points out the playoffs at this point in the year, and were all but mathematically done.
Some of that improvement you can put on other new acquisitions such as the goaltenders, Troy Brouwer, or Kris Versteeg, but you can see the main difference between this year and last when the 3M line hits the ice. Specifically the rookie Matthew Tkachuk and his impact.
Last season the pairing of Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund was solid. In particular Backlund has shown the ability over the years to make others around him look better than they really are (ahem Lance Bouma, Joe Colborne), but this year’s line is something else.
Not only has this line been the Flames most consistent trio, they’ve also each shown individual growth and growth as a unit. Defensively Froyo and Backs have always been solid, but with addition of Tkachuk’s hard nosed play, Glen Gulutzan has had the ability to freely pair them against some of the league’s best offensive players, and generate results.
The trio has three of the best four CF% on the team, despite having some of the worst zone starts. The trio has an average CF% of 55.79% despite starting in the offensive zone on average 22.98% of the time. Meaning just under 4/5 faceoffs they take are in the neutral or defensive zone. In comparision, Gaudreau and Monahan have offensive zone starts over 40% but a lower CF% closer to 51%.
What that means is that this 3M line is not only generating scoring chances, but they’re getting the puck out of their zone and moving the up the ice to generate chances for themselves and the lines that follow.
Last season, Frolik and Backlund had an average CF% of 51.87% with a higher 31.3% offensive zone start average. While some of their improvement definitely comes from the better systems under Gulutzan compared to Bob Hartley, that’s still a noticeable difference.
While we’re on the topic of offense, looking at the raw numbers:
Now, let’s extrapolate that out over 82 games or one full NHL season.
*Won’t actually hit 82 games as he missed games earlier this year
Anytime a rookie can put up around 50 points, he’s been doing something right. If Tkachuk stays on his current pace, he’ll not only surpass but crush the point totals that Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett put up their rookie years at 34 and 36 points respectively. If he gets hot, he may even have a shot at Johnny Gaudreau who put up 64 points in 80 games.
Any other year, he’d be definitely be in the running for the Calder trophy or perhaps leading the race, but he’s stuck in a year with a plethora of talented rookies and likely won’t be in the conversation.
As for the other numbers, Michael Frolik is poised to hit targets that are equivalent to his best years (he usually tops out around low-to-mid 40’s in points).
But Mikael Backlund’s improvement is the largest as at this pace he would finish with nine more points than last season, which was a season where some wondered if he’d hit his ceiling.
I think it’s safe to say that had this line never been found, the Flames wouldn’t be enjoying anywhere close to the success they are, and neither would any of these three players. It’s also pretty safe to say that this line will be around for a long time once Backlund extends next season.
So now let’s take a trip back to the draft when Matthew Tkachuk landed right in the Flames’ lap, and set off this somewhat unexpected chain of events that has led to the formation of one of the league’s best lines.
When the Columbus Blue Jackets chose to stray away from the consensus third overall pick in Jesse Puljujärvi and pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, it set things up perfectly for the events that followed.
The Edmonton Oilers took Puljujärvi and the Vancouver Canucks stayed firm in their idea to draft a defenseman by choosing Olli Juolevi over what many thought was the best player left on the board in Tkachuk.
While I’m confident that those other three players will become strong players in the NHL in the future, none of them has made any impact at the NHL level yet. Dubois and Juolevi immediately found themselves in junior, and Puljujärvi is honing is skills in Bakersfield of the AHL.
Granted I don’t think anyone foresaw Tkachuk establishing himself as an NHL regular so quickly and so dominantly either.
So we say thank you to those three teams for freeing up Matthew Tkachuk for the Flames to pluck at 6th overall so he could create the impact that he does.
But really a bigger thank you should go to Tkachuk and the Flames organization as a whole as they’ve all put in tons of hard work to help him adapt to the NHL game and get him comfortable. He’s put in the hard work and bounced back from mistakes in stride. Now, he looks like just another NHLer on the ice, not a fresh faced 19 year old in the midst of his first playoff hunt.
Tkachuk has shown the ability to play with grit and edge that the Flames had missed for many seasons, and found a way to make a noticeable impact while doing so. He has the tenacity that can’t be taught, and it will only serve him better as he continues to grow. The learning he’s done in the last few months alone has been exponential.
His relentless dedication to fight for the puck and unwillingness to back down from anyone and/or everyone gives us lots of reason for excitement for his future. Heck, it gives us tons of reason for excitement right now.
And while we’re excited about him, there’s some folks to the north of us that aren’t exactly thrilled. You can check out their piece here. I think it’s just their inner jealousy seeping out.