Two of hockey’s best young power forwards will play Thursday in Ottawa, so let’s break them down.
1. People love a list, and there are always plenty of them before, during an after the NHL season. One thing that has caught my eye over the last year is the comparison between Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk and Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov.
There are obvious similarities. Both are big, strong wingers who can score and also assert themselves physically, and they just so happen to have been drafted at the top of the 2018 draft — Svechnikov second overall, followed by Tkachuk two picks later.
They also both inked long-term contracts this offseason that solidify them as cornerstones of their franchises. Tkachuk received a seven-year, $57.5 million contract that also included being named the Senators’ captain, while Svechnikov agreed to an eight-year, $62 million deal, the richest in Hurricanes history.
That’s about $500,000 more annually for Tkachuk.
2. So the next obvious thing to look at is production, and both are having solid 2021-22 seasons.
Svechnikov, spurred on by his recent five-game multipoint streak, is a point-per-game player with 14 goals and 22 assists in 36 games. After having just two points in six games in December, Svechnikov has 14 in nine games so far in January.
“Obviously, you want to get points, but you don’t want to think about them,” Svechnikov said Thursday morning. “You just want to go out there and play your hardest game and you’re going get success always.”
Tkachuk has 12 goals and 15 assists for 27 points in 33 games this season. He plays 18:28 a night — 77 seconds more per game than Svechnikov. Both play just over three minutes per game on the power play and neither kill penalties, so the difference is mostly in even strength ice time.
Twenty-five of Svechnikov’s points — including 11 goals, four of which are empty-netters — have come at even strength, while Tkachuk has nine goals and 14 assists. Tkachuk has just four power play points compared to Svechnikov’s 11. Carolina’s PP is ranked fifth in the NHL at 26.3%, compared to the Senators’ 20th-ranked power play at 18.8%.
3. The big difference between the two on the scoresheet? Assists. Svechnikov is known around the league as a scorer, but those who watch him every day argue that his passing is even better.
“He’s an incredible passer,” defenseman Brett Pesce said Thursday. “He always makes those unbelievable no-look passes. I don’t know how the public views it, but we definitely appreciate it on our team.”
Svechnikov, especially during his current streak, has made several show-stopping passes. He had the fake lacrosse move and pass to Nino Niederreiter for a goal against the Rangers in last Friday’s win. He feathered a pass through a defender Tuesday against Vegas to set up Vincent Trocheck’s goal, only to one-up himself in overtime by powering through William Carrier and setting up Sebastian Aho’s game-winner.
So is he a better passer than shooter?
“I feel like I can do both,” Svechnikov said. “I will say I like to score, everyone does, and I also can pass as well, so it’s tough. That’s up to you guys.”
Still, 10 of Tkachuk’s 15 helpers have been primary assists, while 13 of Svechnikov’s 22 are first assists. Both know how to create for their teammates.
4. We haven’t gotten to the physicality both bring to the rink.
Tkachuk — like father Keith and his brother, Calgary’s Matthew — is downright mean and has 66 PIMs this season, a career-high pace. At 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, he is one of the more imposing players in the league even though he’s just 22. He already has 843 hits in 231 career games, including 118 this season — tied for ninth-most among forwards in the NHL.
“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree with those guys,” said Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, who played against Brady and Matthew Tkachuk’s dad, Keith. “He’s taught ’em to play hard very night, try to be impactful, and that’s how they play.”
Svechnikov isn’t as big (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and still has the shadow of his knockout loss to Alexander Ovechkin in a playoff fight three years ago hanging over him, but more and more he’s asserting himself. He’s averaging nearly two hits per game this season, but since the calendar flipped to 2022 he has 26 hits in his last nine games — almost three per game.
And there’s also how he can power his way around the ice.
“Yeah, he’s not that fun to go up against in practice, that’s for sure,” defenseman Brett Pesce said Thursday. “His game, he’s kind of went above and beyond. And it’s not just scoring, right? He can do everything. He can, if it’s a gritty game, he’s the guy leading the pack for us with hits and physicality.
“You don’t see that too often in a player, especially with his skill, and I think that just makes him even more special than he already was.”
Svechnikov said the physical part of the game just come naturally for him.
“I don’t ever try to go and just kill some somebody, but when I kind of have to do that, I will do that,” Svechnikov said. “But once I see the moment … I will get it, and I love that part of the game and I’ve just been doing that.”
Off the Svechnikov/Tkachuk theme, Ethan Bear will return to the lineup against Ottawa. It’s been a tough season for the 24-year-old defenseman. He was forced to quarantine 10 days in San Jose after testing positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 22 and he struggled upon returning.
Pre-COVID Bear: one goal, five assists in 16 games while logging more than 18 minutes a game, often alongside Jaccob Slavin.
Post-COVID Bear: one goal, no assists in 11 games in about 13½ minutes a night, usually on the third pairing.
His possession numbers have been good — 56.9% CF, second-best among the seven usual defensemen on the roster — but he will need to show he can lead a pairing with Ian Cole.
After being a healthy scratch in the last five games, Bear will now get that chance. With the Hurricanes coming up in talks about available defensemen, Bear will need to convince the team they already have everything they need.