Matthew Tkachuk hopes to follow his famous father’s footsteps to the NHL one day soon. And his early march through the Ontario Hockey League in his inaugural season in the league has been – to say the very least – sure-footed.
“Things seem to have clicked right away,” Tkachuk said. “I was playing with a lot of great players early and I’m on a good team, so it’s been an easier adjustment for me than most kids.”
Often, players who come from the American system and transition to the OHL take a half-season or more to adjust to the pace. That has not been the case with Tkachuk, who is amongst the OHL’s leading scorers with 65 points in 34 games. Tkachuk is tied for third overall in the league with frequent linemate Mitch Marner and Erie’s Dylan Strome, and behind only Kevin Labanc and another frequent linemate, Christian Dvorak.
The other issue can be the dreaded mid-season wall – especially for players coming from programs that don’t play as many games. Again, if that wall ever appeared, Tkachuk ran right through it.
“There are more games, but it’s easier,” he said. “I’m still a kid, I still love to play. It hasn’t been hard on me, that part.”
The London Knights have a history of bringing elite American players into the league. With that experience comes the understanding of which players are going to adjust well. Knights’ assistant coach Dylan Hunter said the team isn’t surprised with how well Tkachuk has taken to the OHL.
“He’s one of those special kind of gamer-type of guys. His compete level is off the charts. When we saw him play last year and the years before, we knew that,” Hunter explained. “He has the bloodlines with his dad and he has the compete level, so we knew it wouldn’t take this league for granted.”
It has been a successful season by all counts for Tkachuk. He finds himself near the top of all the draft boards and pundits’ lists. Though Auston Matthews is consistently the top-ranked prospect, Tkachuk is right there – rated an A-level prospect by NHL Central Scouting and ranked third by ISS Hockey in its latest ranking behind his fellow American and Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi. He was an integral part of Team USA earning a bronze medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship earlier this month, and he was recently named captain of Team Orr for the Jan. 28th BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
Even if he is not entirely sure what to expect.
“It’s an honor, definitely. Coming from the U.S., I don’t know a whole lot about the game, but I’ve been looking more into it and talking to family,” Tkachuk said. “My uncle, who is also my agent, has been telling me a lot about it. He’s been involved with it for a number of years. It’s been interesting and it sounds like a really fun and competitive game.”
He has some ideas as to how he wants to embrace his captaincy for this marquee game.
“I guess just trying to get the guys to gel as quickly as possible,” he said. “I want to win that game and I know the rest of the players want to win that game. It’s a chance to showcase yourself in front of a number of scouts and NHL teams. The more you’re gelling as a team, the more success you’re going to have.”
Hunter explained that the game is an excellent opportunity for Tkachuk to evaluate himself against his peer group.
“If you ask him, he would say the right thing. It’s an honor. It’s an honor just to be asked to play in that type of game,” Hunter explained. “To be named the captain, I think it shows to his compete and the way he really just brings everything to the game.
“For him it’s good, it’s a measuring stick to where you’re going to be. You’re going to be playing against the majority of those guys for the next 10 to 15 years, so it’s good to see where you’re at for himself and it’s a chance for him to prove that in front of everyone else.”
And even if Tkachuk is not overly familiar with the game, he is pretty familiar with the man whose team he will be leading.
“Yeah, my dad knows Bobby,” he said. “My dad’s from Boston and [Orr’s] from Boston, so I’ve run into him a few times.”
And did that familiarity play any role in the captaincy? “I have no idea,” Tkachuk said, laughing.
It has been a heck of a month for Tkachuk. His Team USA finished third at the World Juniors and Tkachuk equaled Matthews with 11 points in the tournament. He said that the experience has helped him understand how to best approach each and every game.
“I think it helped in the sense that every team’s good and you have to treat every game like you’re playing a Canada or you’re playing a Russia. Otherwise you’re not going to play your best and you’re going to fall into bad habits,” he said. “So I go into every game thinking I’m playing the best teams, and if you do that you should play your best and come out with a good result.”
And the level of play was eye-opening.
“Yeah, the U-20s is something crazy. You have the William Nylanders, the Ivan Provorovs, the Auston Matthews – some of those guys like that who are the generational players. Last year it was McDavid/Eichel,” Tkachuk said. “It just speaks to the magnitude of that tournament and the surrounding cast with the rest of the teams.
“Even a team like Denmark, they almost squeaked by Russia. That’s one of those tournaments where you just can’t take a team lightly. And it’s very, very fast paced.”
Hunter added that the experience in playing with – and against – players at that elite level offers important lessons that Tkachuk has applied.
“It’s such an emotional roller coaster. We talked about that, every time they come back they’re going so hard. It’s your first time playing for your country on the big stage – televised. I know he’s kind of disappointed in the way it turned out, but he took it the right way as a learning experience,” Hunter said. “I think the biggest thing for them is being able to play with top players in a very short amount of time and learning how to craft your game to suit an Auston Matthews or a [Alex] DeBrincat, who you’re not used to playing with.”
Though Tkachuk has been earning plenty of attention for his play and holds a spot at the top of most draft lists, the forward insists that he’s not really paying attention to that – nor is he in the comparison game.
“I had the chance to play with Auston, I’ve played against the two Finns [Puljujarvi and winger Patrik Laine]… I haven’t had a chance to play against [Jakob] Chychrun yet. But it’s something where you have to focus on your own play,” he said. “Once you get caught up in the draft hype, that’s when your play can start to diminish.”
And playing in a hotbed junior market like London, complete with a steady stream of scouts and draft watchers pouring through the Budweiser Gardens doesn’t cause him any additional stress. In fact, Tkachuk said he embraces the challenge.
“If you’re a good player and you like the big-time stage, this is the perfect place to be,” he said.