Hockey has family ties like no other sport. Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull had brothers who played in the NHL and also had sons who became Hall of Fame players like their fathers. Six Sutter brothers played in the league at the same time, four Staal brothers, three Stastny brothers. The list goes on and on. Another family is preparing to enter the upper echelon of the group.
In 2010, Keith Tkachuk retired after an 18-year career as a classic power winger. Few players in history can match his combination of scoring ability and physicality. He amassed more than 500 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. In 1996-97, he was a wrecking machine with 52 goals and 228 PIMs. In 2016, his elder son, Matthew, joined his father as a first-round pick (sixth overall), and in his first two NHL seasons, he has become a key member of the Calgary Flames. Last June, younger son Brady was drafted fourth overall by the Ottawa Senators. If his play in a pre-season rookie tournament is any indication, he’s ready to become a contributing member of the Senators this year.
How successful will Matthew and Brady become? How do they compare to each other? Could the Tkachuks end up being mentioned in the same breath as the NHL’s all-time great family combinations?
To veteran hockey observers, Brady and Matthew both suffer in skating comparisons with their father. Keith had a beautifully fluid skating stride on a 235-pound body. Neither son can match it. In fact, prior to his draft, some NHL people were concerned about the “clunky” nature of Matthew’s skating. His play since being drafted has alleviated those concerns, but skating will never be the strength of his game. Brady’s skating smoothed out before he was drafted. His acceleration isn’t great at this point, but his skating is smoother than Matthew’s was at the same age.
Brady and Matthew are both blue-chip prospects. Matthew is more proven because he’s two years older with two years of NHL experience. Both have the potential to be first-line wingers on a Stanley Cup contender. Both shoot left, but when used on the off-wing, both have looked fine. Both make good plays consistently when they’re playing with good teammates. Both can score and have a nose for the net. Both will go to the tough scoring areas and get big goals on deflections or rebounds. Both draw penalties because of their size and perseverance. I see no difference in the roles they are capable of assuming.
It is interesting to compare the routes the Tkachuk brothers took prior to being drafted. They played minor hockey in St. Louis and then both went to Michigan to play for the U.S. national under-17 and under-18 teams. They both excelled in the U.S. program, including their performances at the world under-18 championship and World Junior Championship. Because they both have birth dates after Sept. 15, neither was eligible for the NHL draft after completing the under-18 program. Matthew elected to play for OHL London while Brady went the college route with Boston University. Both were considered world-class prospects and were high draft picks. Both signed upon being drafted, and I’m confident Brady will follow in Matthew’s footsteps and jump directly to the NHL as a regular. Both have the potential to become first-liners, but in their pre-draft careers, Matthew was a more consistent scorer.
This is another area where Keith’s career makes it difficult for Brady and Matthew. Keith was huge, fast and mean. His open-ice hits were crushing. His sons play in a different era. With that in mind, both of them should get top grades for grittiness. Neither takes a shift off. Both battle hard in tight quarters. Both can cycle the puck under pressure. Both will go to the dirty areas to score and remain there. Their teammates know the Tkachuk brothers have their backs.
Keith had good hockey sense. And both Brady and Matthew have shown elite-level hockey sense. As the saying goes, “These guys can play.” They seem to understand what their role should be in all situations. They’re poised under pressure, especially when the game is on the line. They play with an element of maturity about them. When it comes to on-ice smarts, both brothers have been really impressive.
Former NHL GM Doug Risebrough used to say, “In hockey, two plus two does not always equal four.” He observed that certain players who appeared to have all of the component requirements could never put everything together, while other players became much more effective than the sum of their parts. Matthew is an example of the latter. His game has an “extra” dimension beyond his overall talent level. He has the “X-factor.” I remember vividly the championship game at the 2016 Memorial Cup. The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies seemed to have the momentum over Matthew’s London Knights. But in sudden-death overtime, Matthew was the dominant player on the ice, controlling the play and scoring the game-winning goal. Prior to joining the Knights, Matthew was the perfect complement to Auston Matthews on the U.S. under-18 team: he was able to get the puck to Matthews; he sensed when Matthews was tiring and would carry the puck himself; and when older players on USHL teams were trying to rough up Matthews, Matthew arrived in a hurry – and in a foul mood – to stand up for his linemate. Early in his NHL career, the Flames were struggling late in a game and looked fatigued. Matthew turned the game around. He stole the puck, drove to the net and competed for a rebound. He drew a penalty and, even though he wasn’t involved in the power-play winner, he was a prime factor in the victory. I knew then that his NHL career was off and running. Brady has not had the same high-profile opportunities as his older brother. He competes well in big situations, but it remains to be seen whether he can respond in the same seize-the-moment manner as Matthew. Not all good hockey players have the X-factor.
Brady and Matthew Tkachuk meet all of the requirements to become top-line players on high-level teams for many years. Both could become NHL stars. Their skating is good enough and their hockey sense, hand skills, scoring ability and competitiveness are all at the elite level. Neither one is the physical behemoth that their father was, and neither has Keith’s incredibly fluid skating stride for a big man. Brady and Matthew are also playing in a different era of hockey, where strength is more directed to maintaining puck possession and establishing position than it is to pure physicality. By the end of their careers, Brady and Matthew could build on Keith’s legacy and have fans mentioning the Tkachuk name in the same breath as the Sutters, Stastnys, Staals, Hulls and Howes. Take both players for your team if at all possible. If you can only choose one of them, remember the X-factor. Matthew has it. Brady might, but we don’t know yet. Never turn down a player with the X-factor. Grab Matthew right away.
Tom Thompson has been an NHL scout/director/assistant GM since 1985.
This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.