Give Matthew Tkachuk credit. The Calgary Flames forward has single-handedly put the Battle of Alberta back on the hockey map, perfectly casting himself either as the hero, or villain, depending on which way you might lean.
His performance Saturday night was positively Shakespearean — taking multiple huge runs at Zack Kassian, instantly turtling when the hot-headed Edmonton Oilers forward blew a fuse and came for his pound of flesh, creating the perfect power play screen on the game-winning goal, and then throwing more gasoline on the fire with his post-game comments.
It was great theatre. And, about 18 hours later as I sat at Bell MTS Place watching the Winnipeg Jets fall flat in a 1-0 loss to Nashville, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the hometown team could benefit from having a shift disturber like Tkachuk in their midst.
After all, the very questions I posed in my Free Press game story following the lacklustre loss to the Predators — Where’s the passion? The urgency? The desperation? — would be instantly addressed by such a player, wouldn’t they?
“That doesn’t matter, so I’m going to say no. You can write that article and question that. I certainly wouldn’t,” Paul Maurice said Monday when I asked him that following his team’s practice.
“I’ll leave that to you to write.”
Fair enough, and I’ll happily take you up on that offer, coach. I’m not surprised Maurice didn’t want to go there, as it’s typically not in the nature of a bench boss to discuss what they don’t have in their lineup. Nor would he want to be seen as disparaging the players he does have.
But the more I watch these Jets this season, the more I’m convinced they’re missing this very kind of player, a Public Enemy No. 1 type who is an absolute pain to play against, can swing momentum or provide a spark on any given shift and can quickly get under the opponent’s skin.
Jets forward Andrew Copp agreed that such a player can be a very valuable tool in today’s NHL, as Tkachuk demonstrated in Calgary’s latest victory over their provincial rival.
“The last thing you want to do is put your team down a man in a big situation, but with that said, you want to have guys who are ready to battle for each other and are always willing to do whatever it takes in that sense.” – Jets forward Andrew Copp
“I think there’s definitely a place for it. Especially now, with how tight the game is called, with the evolution of the game, the last thing you want to do is put your team down a man in a big situation, but with that said, you want to have guys who are ready to battle for each other and are always willing to do whatever it takes in that sense,” Copp said Monday.
“The physical side of the game can still intimidate teams, for sure. We’ve seen that over the course of playoffs in the past couple of years. Definitely a place for it, but I think it’s coming to a point now where you really have to be careful about getting overzealous in terms of getting suspended or costing your team a power play.”
A fine line to balance, for sure. One that Tkachuk executed to perfection and Kassian fell for hook, line and sinker.
There’s no question this Jets club is loaded with elite skill and talent, especially up front. And they’re great on the rush offensively. But Maurice has repeatedly stated the Jets aren’t producing enough in the so-called hard areas, getting the greasy type of goals in net-front scrums and deflections. Just look at how Nashville was able to contain them, repeatedly taking away time and space and clogging up the middle of the ice.
Maurice believes the players he does have are capable of adapting to that grittier style.
“The willingness and ability to go to the net front, you don’t have to be that kind of player. There are lots of skilled guys that just time that right to get to the net front. There are a whole bunch of things that are going to go to that. It’s not just hey, we need a guy to stand in front of the net,” said Maurice.
“We aren’t naturally built to go net front. That doesn’t mean we can’t go net front.”
Still, if general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is looking to fill a hole between now and the trade deadline, finding that type of high-energy, physical player with some scoring punch would be a great place to start.
“We aren’t naturally built to go net front. That doesn’t mean we can’t go net front.” – Jets coach Paul Maurice
You could make the argument the Jets had two of them last season in Brendan Lemieux (traded to the New York Rangers in February) and Brandon Tanev (signed with Pittsburgh during the summer). And all they brought in to replace them is 29-year-old journeyman forward Gabriel Bourque, who certainly gives it his all but lacks the speed, size and skill to be a difference-maker.
To be clear, Tkachuk isn’t going anywhere. But someone like Minnesota’s Marcus Foligno, should the Wild fall out of playoff contention and he becomes available, quickly comes to mind. Just look at Winnipeg’s game against the Wild earlier this month, where the 28-year-old was targeting everyone in a Jets jersey.
One thing Maurice and players were quick to shoot down Monday is the suggestion that they’re lacking desperation to their game, even if it’s perhaps looking that way at times lately with just four wins in their past 13 contests.
Perhaps, Maurice suggested, the Jets are once again falling victim to the increased expectations they’ve created.
“We got through November and everybody forgot that they should be surprised that we got through November the way we did and decided that this game should be easy through December, and it’s not. Now we’re in our grinder, we’re not going to go out and dominate teams in the first 15 minutes on will and enthusiasm,” said Maurice.
“It’s going to be a highly contested kind of grinder from here on the way out. And we’re not owning all of them. We’re going to take a few punches, get back up off the mat. These games will get more and more contested. I get it. As a coach you do the same thing, you want perfection on every shift. We should be able to win every puck, win every battle, make every play. That’s never happened once for any time, so you’re going to have to reset your expectations.”
A player with some bite, some edge, could certainly help the cause. Because the last thing the Jets want to be known as are the nice guys who finished last.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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