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Tkachuk brothers keep proving they’re not just trolls

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There’s just something annoying, maybe enraging, about Brady Tkachuk and Matthew Tkachuk.

Keith’s progeny bring a lot to the table of obnoxiousness. Some of their facial expressions practically demand a mitt in the mush. That only intensifies when they stick their mouthpieces out like plastic tongues. One can only imagine how irritating their trash talk can be, considering that even Brady refers to Matthew as a “pest.”

For opponents, the worst part is that they aren’t just the worst, they’re also among the best players on their respective teams. And it sure seems like they keep getting better, which should only make them bigger headaches.

The Brad Marchand Club

While pure pests are becoming an endangered species in the NHL, there are still some who can eke out a living even if they do little beyond getting under your skin.

It’s early, even in Matthew’s career, but it sure feels like it’s going to be increasingly appropriate to compare the Tkachuk brothers to Brad Marchand, a hyper-talented hyper-pest.

Through 24 games, Matthew Tkachuk has generated an impressive 27 points for the Calgary Flames.

Remarkably, he continues to do a significant chunk of his damage at even-strength, as only nine of his 27 points have come on the power play. Brady Tkachuk is creating a similar impact so far, as he’s managed 16 points in his first 14 games with the Ottawa Senators, with a mere four being PPP.

Now, it’s important to note the Tkachuk puck luck at hand. Matthew’s 12 goals come on just 54 SOG (22.2 percent), while Brady’s nine goals happened on a mere 43 SOG (20.9 percent).

With such high percentages in mind, it’s probably dangerous to pencil them in as point-per-game players, at least not until they start generating a little more offense on special teams. Regardless, the overarching point remains sound: like Marchand, Claude Lemieux, and select few, the Tkachuk brothers can hurt your soul, harm your body, and embarrass you on the scoreboard.

Smart pests

It remains to be seen if either Tkachuk can truly join Marchand in the NHL’s upper crust, but it sure seems like both stand a chance of using their wits to make a difference. After all, Marchand is a testament to agitating players sometimes being their own worst enemies.

As Ryan Pike recently explained for Flames Nation, there was a time when Matthew Tkachuk made some dumb decisions that landed him on the Department of Player Safety’s rolodex,* yet there are signs that he’s learning how to pick his spots. Instead of engaging Zach Kassian in a fight during a rowdy Battle of Alberta, Matthew decided not to take the bait, ultimately putting the Oilers in the penalty box for three minors:

* – Come on, they probably still ride the train and use typewriters, right?

Even earlier in his career, Matthew Tkachuk was drawing far more penalties than he was taking, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s handy penalties drawn/taken numbers.

Brady hasn’t mastered that art yet, but there are already signs of an advanced hockey IQ. Like Matthew, he’s beginning his career with more defensive zone starts than shifts beginning in the attacking zone, a sign that he has two-way smarts and the trust of his coach. That trust has been justified in each case, as both Tkachuk brothers are puck possession monsters so far.

The younger Tkachuk brother also showed some great vision and awareness in identifying this loose puck before anyone else, starting a run of consecutive shifts with goals during Ottawa’s comeback win against the Flyers on Tuesday:

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The Tkachuk brothers seem to have the requisite “nose for the net” to score ugly goals, but let’s hope that they keep their mouthpieces in at key times. They don’t want to be like their father Keith, who apparently needed to transplant part of his hip bone during especially ghastly dental surgery after taking a puck to the face. Even trolls (probably) deserve better than that.

/gags

Again, it’s remarkable – and for opponents, unnerving – to realize how young these two are. Matthew’s proven to be a fantastic top-six forward, and he’s in the final year of his rookie deal at 20, setting the stage for a big raise. Brady, meanwhile, looks very much like a 19-year-old rookie, except when it comes to producing on the ice. If healthy, it’s tough to imagine Brady not at least being an honorable mention for the Calder.

Their great play might slip under the radar just a touch considering their struggling teams (Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is being compared to Larry David, after all), but opponents and opposing fan bases will find them both very difficult to ignore.

And stop.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ryane Clowe: the NHL’s most functional fighter?

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For better or worse, fighting is a part of hockey. It entertains fans and also allows teams to “police” the game. Yet while it’s true that few people stay in their seat for a fight, it’s a shame that so many enforcers don’t leave their seats on the bench until it’s time to march off to a boxing match on ice.

With that in mind, it seemed worthwhile to see if there are semi-regular fighters who can actually play. I put together a short list of the league’s best “mini-enforcers”: players who were involved in at least 10 fights per season in 2010-11 and 2009-10 but still managed to bring a nice offensive boost to the table. (Fight totals via Hockey Fights.com.)

Ryane Clowe: 12 fights and 62 points in 2010-11; 11 fights and 57 points in 2009-10.
Steve Ott: 10 fights and 32 points in 10-11; 11 fights and 36 points in 09-10.
Brandon Prust: 18 fights and 29 points in 10-11; 25 fights and 14 points in 09-10.
Chris Neil: 12 fights and 16 points in 10-11; 13 fights and 22 points in 09-10

Other noteworthy players

Defenseman Theo Peckham is a little newer to the NHL, but he averaged more 18 minutes per game and engaged in 10 fights last season. Steve Downie and Milan Lucic aren’t usually in the 10 fight range, but they’re willing to drop the gloves and have much higher ceilings as scorers than anyone but Clowe. Zenon Konopka can do one thing beyond fighting: win faceoffs. Derek Dorsett might be worthy of an “honorable mention” alongside Neil as guys who fight a lot but can sprinkle in a bit more offense than usual.

***

When you look at that list, it seems like most of the players can be labeled as pests who fight a bit more than usual or enforcers who get a light amount of points. Clowe stands out in that group, though. He fought the likes of Paul Bissonnette and Jared Boll last season, but also showed how much of an impact he could make while playing focused hockey by scoring 15 points in 17 playoff contests in 2011.

Perhaps there’s a current player who provides an even better combination of fighting ability and on-ice usefulness, but if there’s only one player that future “mini-enforcers” could be modeled after, it might just be Clowe.

Rangers waive Sean Avery; John Tortorella gives brutally honest explanation

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There was a time when Sean Avery was a nice little “steal” for the New York Rangers, even if that had a lot to do with the fact that he came with a 50 percent off tag via the Dallas Stars’ faulty contract. In late September, speculation really began to bubble up that the polarizing pest’s slide down the Rangers totem pole has become so pronounced that he won’t even be on the big club this season.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that those rumors turned out to be true: the team decided to waive Avery today. Brooks indicates that this should be far from a surprise, claiming that the Rangers basically made that decision before he boarded the team plane for their trip to Europe. He also speculates as to whether or not the team will risk absorbing his prorated cap hit by bringing him back up through re-entry waivers at some point this season.

It’s hard to foresee what exactly is in store for Avery, who lost a battle for a final spot with shiftier forward Erik Christensen. For years, hockey pundits have been quick to paste the ” … but nonetheless talented,” label on Avery while discussing his latest controversial comment or blunder. He’s never really harnessed those talents for enough good to offset the headaches he causes for his own team, though, and at 31 years old one cannot wonder if he’s running out of chances. (Avery’s contract will expire after this season.)

That’s not to say that this is the end of the line for Avery, however. Still, one cannot help but feel that Avery already reached his pest peak and that “Sloppy seconds” and the Martin Brodeur windshield wiper incident will dominate the first lines of his career’s obituary.

We’ll see what happens with Avery, whether he gets claimed by one of the league’s other 29 teams (through initial waivers or the re-entry process) or possibly works his way back up to the Rangers’ NHL roster. This certainly marks one of the lowest points of a very up and down career for Avery, though.

Update (5 p.m. ET): Tortorella is known as a straight-shooter, but even so, his comments about Avery’s demotion were surprisingly candid.

“I think we have better players than Sean Avery — plain and simple,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said Tuesday. “I can dodge it 10 different ways without trying to run Sean over. I thought he had a good camp.

“But I think with the makeup of our team, and some of the people we’ve added, and some of the youth we’ve added as far as depth put Sean in this spot.”

Brett Hextall: Like father, like son

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Take a look at the name stitched across his back, and fans see a familiar name that makes them wonder about his bloodlines. Take a look at the competitive style on the ice and he removes all doubt. The NHL may want to brace itself. There’s another Hextall coming down the road—and he’s just like all of the Hextalls that came before him.

Phoenix Coyotes prospect Brett Hextall signed a pro contract this April and will be wreaking havoc all over the Coyotes training camp this week. He spent two seasons with Junior A Penticton before moving on to the University of North Dakota.

“Yeah, [the chippiness] probably my strongest point—at least when I’m playing my most effective,” Hextall explained. “I’m really getting under people’s skin just because I’m a pest. Like a Max Talbot, Matt Cooke, or someone like that. If I can be a relentless guy, [play] in-your-face, winning pucks, and just getting under people’s skin because I’m always around, always there, and always getting a piece of them. That’s definitely when I’m at my best.”

That’s right. A Hextall just said that he’s at his best when he’s playing like Matt Cooke. Not surprisingly, it’s something he’s learned from his family. He’s known from the start what it would take to be a good hockey player.

“I got that ‘mentality’ from my Grandpa and my Dad and hearing their stories,” the 5’10” forward shared. “You play the game hard with everything you’ve got. That’s the only way I’ve ever known. I’m definitely not going to ‘wow’ anyone with my skill, but if I can play a really hard, up-and-down game, that’s when I’m at my best.”

He’s right—when he’s playing with an edge, he’s an unmistakable force on the ice. But he’s selling himself short when he says he won’t “wow” anyone out on the ice. He’s an incredibly fast skater with above average hands that are good for more than just fighting. He racked up 72 points in his final season with Penticton in “one of the best years of his life,” and then managed double-digit goals in each of his three seasons with the University of North Dakota.

Some people might be surprised that the younger Hextall didn’t follow his father’s lead into the net. But what younger fans may not realize, is that Ron isn’t the only former NHLer with the Hextall surname. In fact, Brett is looking to become the second-ever 4th generation NHL player. His great-grandfather Bryan had a Hall of Fame career for the New York Rangers. His grandfather (Bryan, Jr.) and great-uncle (Dennis) also had long careers in the NHL. All of the family made it to the NHL as skaters; it wasn’t until Ron played goal that the family made a name with a netminder. Brett told ProHockeyTalk.com that he tried on the mask and pads when he was younger—but it wasn’t for him.

“My Dad just told me, ‘Just keep playing forward, learn how to skate, and then we’ll go from there.’ I eventually never really feel in love with [goaltending]. I like being a forward, it never stuck.”

Finding a position isn’t the only advice Ron dispensed to his son, as he tried to find his career path. Ron, the current assistant GM of the Los Angeles Kings, encouraged Brett to go the college route to serve as a back-up plan if his hockey career didn’t pan out.

The youngest Hextall says going to college was always his plan. “I definitely wanted to play college growing up. My Dad played major junior and he told me, if he didn’t play in the NHL, he’s not sure where his life would have led. He definitely encouraged me to take the college route and it’s worked out pretty well.

Like so many other hockey players, there was a bit of luck that was involved when the Coyotes selected him with their 6th round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. Assistant GM Brad Treliving revealed that the organization was in Penticton to scout a better known prospect (Zac Dalpe).

“It’s funny, when we drafted him… I remember coming out of that game and saying, ‘who’s this kid?’ He was causing a riot it seemed every shift. So we took him with the thought that he’s a competitive kid, obviously he had great bloodlines.”

Needless to say, those within the Coyotes management are intrigued with the type of player they’ve landed.

“I think his game translates to a 3rd line kind of guy,” explained Treliving. “But he can play with good players. One thing about Brett is that he has ‘hockey intelligence.’ I watched him a lot at North Dakota and he plays with a lot of energy and he can get in and forecheck; but he puts the puck in the right spot, he supports the puck well. He knows how to play the game—he’s a smart player. All of those things [type of role] will weed themselves out in training camp, but I think he’s a guy who can play in a checking, energy type role. But I wouldn’t discount him and say he not a guy who can play with good players.”

But as people keep picking apart his game and analyzing his potential, Treliving was able to pay him the biggest compliment without even trying. “He’s definitely a Hextall,” Treliving said with a laugh.

Does that mean we can expect him to attack future Hall of Famers in the future? “I might have to!” the younger Hextall said with a grin. “I have to get a few YouTube videos just to match-up [with my Dad].”

Yeah, it’s doubtful the rest of the league will be a laughing when he’s showing the rest of the league exactly what “being a Hextall” means.

Brad Marchand finds right balance between agitation and offense

When people discuss pests or agitators, most of those players count as “double-edged swords” for their teams.

Just look at the roller coaster career of New York Rangers nuisance Sean Avery, the most notorious character for reasons that rarely have much to do with his on-ice play. Avery’s big mouth and nefarious attitude often find him in the penalty box and sometimes provides competition with unwanted motivation. That being said, he can also be an impact player when his head is on straight and the bounces go his way.

The problem is, when you take that pestering aspect out of Avery’s game, he seems like a cat without claws. Simply put, he hasn’t found the proper balance between annoyance and productivity.

The 2011 Stanley Cup finals feature some of the league’s greatest examples of how to strike the right compromise. Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows might be infuriating at times, but they frequently benefit the Vancouver Canucks without taking a whole lot from the table.

Of course, those two Canucks skaters have had plenty of time to iron out the kinks in their pestering games. Boston Bruins’ pest Brad Marchand might be the most impressive example in this series; he’s already excelling at walking that difficult tight rope even though this is his rookie year in the NHL.

Sure, he’s had his regrettable moments like any other player of his ilk. Late in the regular season, he motivated the Toronto Maple Leafs with an immature (if ultimately correct) golf swing motion that ultimately backfired when the Leafs came back. He also had a less than great moment in Game 4 against Vancouver.

One of those things happened as he was skating away from the melee late in Game 4. As he coasted past the Vancouver bench with an official serving as a guide, Marchand wiped his hands in an exaggerated fashion — not a taunt with which the Canucks players found much pleasure.

“That’s something I shouldn’t have done,” Marchand said. “It was a little childish. They were yelling at me from the bench and that was just how I reacted. I kind of wish I didn’t do it.”

That being said, the motion didn’t light a fire in the dejected Canucks nor did it earn Marchand a trip to the penalty box. Perhaps riding that line involves a bit of luck, but it doesn’t hurt when you’re a legitimate NHL player. Marchand boldly claimed he would score 20 goals this season and seemed like he would be far off that pace with five goals midway through the season. Bruins coach Claude Julien reminded him of his claim and perhaps that pumped him up because he scored 16 in his last 39 games to hit 21 for the regular season.

He hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs, either. A great Game 4 performance propelled him into the scoring lead among postseason rookies, with his 15 points giving him a one-point edge on San Jose Sharks standout Logan Couture.

If you told the Bruins a rookie would be a key facet to their playoff run, they’d probably expect it to be Tyler Seguin. Yet while Seguin struggles to earn Julien’s trust and score with regularity, Marchand has become a fixture on the Bruins’ solid second line. His teammates have taken notice, too.

Marchand has already tied the rookie record for most goals by a Boston player in one playoff year; one more goal would move him into the top 20 in franchise history for a single postseason.

“He’s not a pest to his teammates, that’s for sure,” goaltender Tim Thomas said. “I think he’s a great player who brings energy and effort every night, basically — and that helps the team. The last two games, Game 3 and Game 4, he had huge goals for us, beautiful goals for us that were skill goals. On top of that energy and effort that he brings every night, he has skill.”

Despite all of these positive thoughts, Marchand is still working to harness his game. That means there will be steps forward and backward as his career marches on. We’ll see if he – and his team – take another step in the right direction in Game 5 tonight.