NHL Prospects

Is Matt Tkachuk a sleeper top five pick in the 2016 NHL Draft?

John Crouch/Icon Sportswire

London Knights forward Matt Tkachuk burst onto the scene shortly after committing to the London Knights this season; and it’s no wonder, given his pedigree — both personal and familial.

The son of former NHL great Keith Tkachuk, the younger Tkachuk was born in Scottsdale, Arizona and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Keith played for the Coyotes at the time of his birth and moved his family to Missouri when he joined the Blues organization. Needless to say, he knew the ins and outs of the hockey business before he was even on scouts’ radar.

Sometimes, the sons of retired NHLers get special media attention simply due to family ties. But the offensive juggernaut has carved his own path in hockey, and it all started last year when he was a part of the U.S. National U18 Team.

Lining up with top scorer Auston Matthews — the favorite to go first overall at the 2016 draft — Tkachuk scored 96 points (38G, 58A) in 57 games. He also took part in the U18 World Junior Tournament, notching a tournament-high 10 assists and leading the U.S. to a gold medal victory.

The former fourth-round pick by the London Knights in 2013 was expected to go the college route as he had committed to the University of Notre Dame. However, after his USDP season concluded last spring, Tkachuk officially signed with the Knights as part of an All-American recruitment effort (Max Jones, JJ Piccinich and Kole Sherwood joined on as well).

This year, Tkachuk teamed up once again with Matthews when he took part in the U20 WJC, scoring 11 points in seven games to help secure a bronze medal for the Americans. And, of course, scoring 107 points (30G, 77A) in 57 games to finish fifth overall in OHL scoring as a first-year player put him right in the spotlight.

Despite the lofty numbers, there is still plenty of doubt about his chances for being a top-five pick in the upcoming 2016 draft. Before the season began, many believed that the top of the draft class was a bit weaker than usual and pundits pegged him as a probable fourth-overall pick behind Matthews, OHL defenseman Jakob Chychrun and Finnish forward Jesse Puljujarvi.

Now, Patrik Laine, Alex Nylander and Tkachuk’s London Knights teammate Olli Juolevi have all entered the conversation for top-five consideration, weaving some uncertainty into his placement as the draft approaches.

Tkachuk’s playoff performance may be the deciding factor on the matter, though, and he’s off to quite the hot start. After failing to register a point in the opening two games in London, Tkachuk broke out in a big way in Owen Sound, scoring two goals in Game 3 and tallying a remarkable four goals and one assist in Game 4. The latter was a high-scoring affair in which Tkachuk was the obvious driving force, but even he was critical of the team’s performance.

“It was good enough (to win Game 4), but it’s not going to be enough to win the OHL (title),” Tkachuk told The London Free Press. “We relied too much on (goalie Tyler) Parsons again. We gave up (39) shots to a team that likes to put pucks on net, but that’s no excuse. We’re going to start needing a bigger team effort and we’ve got to block more shots. We can’t let them through. Five went in. That’s too much.”

The OHL title Tkachuk referred to is the ultimate goal for these Knights. It would be the first time since 2013 that they would win the J. Ross Robertson Cup and it would be their best chance to win the Memorial Cup — Canadian major junior hockey’s ultimate prize — since they claimed it in 2005. Tkachuk has been surrounded by some of the most exceptional talent in the OHL this season, but his immaculate season has been mostly a result of his own doing.

For now, he will focus on having another big performance in the potential elimination game on Friday night (Game 5). But everything he does now is seen under a microscope – scouts are watching, and he’s got to prove to them that he is top-five-worthy.

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