He scores. He infuriates his opponents. He plays too close to the edge sometimes. And Tkachuk is about to learn the hard way what happens when his behavior crosses the line.
No TV. No iPad. No sleepovers with your friends. That’s what we’d be telling Matthew Tkachuk if he were our son. He’s behaving like a child seriously in need of a timeout.
Not that it’s always a bad thing when the Calgary Flames left winger runs wild. He has one of the sport’s most unique blends of true scoring talent and infuriating ability to agitate. Wednesday night’s game in Toronto was Peak Tkachuk. He was everywhere, crashing into Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, drawing a penalty on Jake Gardiner and even scoring a gorgeous goal in the shootout, in which Tkachuk waited out Andersen and shot cross-body to beat him top shelf.
Tkachuk has become a modern-day Claude Lemieux. Like Lemieux, Tkachuk was a dominant major junior player and has all the makings of a high-end NHL scorer. Still just a 19-year-old sophomore in this league, he’s nowhere near his offensive ceiling yet. And, like Lemieux, Tkachuk plays a grimy game. He enjoys provoking his opponents with chippy play and watching steam shoot out of their ears. Unfortunately, like Lemieux, Tkachuk also has the propensity to take things too far. The other thing he did in Wednesday’s game, of course, was sneak a spear into Leaf left winger Matt Martin. Tkachuk was on the bench at the time.
“That’s junior hockey stuff,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock told reporters after the game. “He’ll learn over time. You’ve got to give Tkachuk credit. He played a good game. He played hard. No reason for that stuff.
Have a look at the incident. Watch Tkachuk in the top left corner of the screen:
You know who else was a master of cheap shots from the bench? Who else?
Luckily, Tkachuk seemed to pull back a bit as he jabbed Martin, who wasn’t hurt. But that doesn’t get Tkachuk out of trouble with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Not by a long shot.
When I visited the department in 2015 and spoke to their top decision makers, one of the key points they stressed was their zero-tolerance approach to any player who repeats the exact same type of illegal behaviour.
“If you’ve been suspended for the same thing multiple times, if we tell you ‘hey, don’t hit a guy in the head,’ and then you go out again and you hit a guy in the head, you’re not just going to get, ‘Oh, one game, cause he’s done it before,’ said DOPS director Patrick Burke at the time. “Are you doing the same things over and over? Are you learning from what we’re trying to tell you? “
And that’s where things look grim for Tkachuk, who has a hearing with the DOPS today. The listed infraction is unsportsmanlike conduct. The infraction that got Tkachuk suspended just last month: also unsportsmanlike conduct. Tkachuk helped incite a brawl with his stick by poking the Red Wings’ Luke Witkowski, who had already left the ice.
“You can play with an edge for sure, I think he’s an effective player, I think he’s a good player, but sitting on the bench, or in the situation in Detroit where he gives a guy a whack when he’s already off the ice, not really necessary,” Martin told THN’s Ken Campbell after last night’s game.
Two strikes should make an out for Tkachuk. The blow on Martin wasn’t overly forceful, but the point is that he’s missing the point. Screwing around on the bench is essentially spitting in the DOPS’ face just a few weeks after he got punished for doing the same thing. He’s showing no signs of changing his behavior. That same principle has made each suspension longer and longer for principal’s office mainstays Raffi Torres, Brad Marchand and Radko Gudas in recent seasons.
Tkachuk’s acts also violate the game plan new player safety senior vice-president George Parros has laid out regarding plays that don’t impact the game.
There are some non-hockey plays that we could come down better on,” Parros told me last week. “Those conscious decisions that happen behind the play, we can go away from, because there’s less of a need for it in the game today.”
Now it’s time for the DOPS to punish Tkachuk. With Martin not injured, we’re not looking at a mega ban along the lines of Gudas’ 10-gamer, but multiple games would send the appropriate message to Tkachuk.
UPDATE: So Tkachuk earned a one-game suspension. Given the blow he struck on Martin was soft, the thinking is one game in this case is a lot, as a player other than Tkachuk would’ve gotten a fine. Still, a second game would’ve sent a firmer message to someone punished twice for the same infraction in less than a month, no?