Can Matthew Tkachuk will the Panthers into the playoffs?

Sports

TORONTO — Matthew Tkachuk expected this season would be different.

New team. New conference. New lifestyle, even.

Tkachuk was ready for all of it when the Calgary Flames traded him to the Florida Panthers last July.

But a photo finish to the Panthers’ playoff race? Tkachuk didn’t see that coming. And with the Panthers one point back of an Eastern Conference wild-card slot with six games to go, it’s not the most comfortable scenario, either.

“I’ve never been in this position where we’re like the one team on the outside fighting for the last, last spot,” Tkachuk told ESPN this week. “I’ve either been out of the playoffs with x-many games left, or you’re in first place. I’ve been in the playoffs for most of my career, so I still have that itch and that drive and a hunger to make it. We have to do it. Have to. We’ve got to keep turning the page.”

Tkachuk says all this with a mischievous glint in his eye. Like he knows — even if others doubt it — that Florida will find a way. It’s that spark the Panthers coveted when they acquired Tkachuk in the blockbuster deal last summer that sent Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary.

The move didn’t come without controversy. Tkachuk was a pending restricted free agent at the time who told Flames general manager Brad Treliving he wouldn’t be signing in Calgary long-term. So, Treliving inked Tkachuk to an eight-year, $76 million extension that facilitated Tkachuk’s imminent departure to the Panthers without a hiccup.

Meanwhile, Florida was reeling from its disappointing second-round ouster in the playoffs after loading up with the likes of Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot in an ultimately failed attempt to win the Stanley Cup despite earning Presidents’ Trophy honors for a franchise-record 122-point regular season.

Huberdeau — and his 30-goal, 115-point campaign — was a significant part of Florida’s success. Suddenly he was on the way out with Weegar. Giroux and Chiarot departed in free agency. Paul Maurice had been hired to replace Andrew Brunette as head coach.

And Hurricane Tkachuk was about to make landfall.

“I actually remember my dad [former NHL player Keith Tkachuk] saying like, ‘I feel like getting traded is harder than people think because everything’s different,'” Tkachuk said. “I kept telling him, ‘I don’t think it’s going to be that hard. I think it’s going to be easy.'”


The fit was immediately flawless.

Tkachuk bound onto the south Florida scene with five goals and 16 points in his first 11 games. It was a seamless transition from the career-best year Tkachuk produced with the Flames in 2021-22, when his 42 goals and 104 points in 82 games proved the known on-ice agitator was more than just an enduring pest. Tkachuk could be an offensive powerhouse, too.

That has been the case in Florida. Even as the Panthers stumbled their way to repeatedly poor results, Tkachuk was pulling his weight putting up top-10 numbers in the league. That led to being one of Florida’s representatives in February’s NHL All-Star Game, where he was crowned MVP.

The 25-year-old didn’t let up from there. Through 72 games, Tkachuk had climbed to fifth overall in points (with 97), to go with 35 goals. His consistency would eventually be a catalyst to Florida surging from bottom dweller to playoff contender.

On Jan. 1, the Panthers looked dead in the water at 16-18-4 and sitting 23rd overall in the league. Only Montreal had a worse record in the Atlantic Division.

Then, Florida flipped a switch with a 10-3-2 run into early February and wouldn’t lose back-to-back games again until mid-March. That skid — dropping four straight before topping Toronto in overtime Wednesday — put the Panthers back behind the Penguins (who are one point up with a game in hand) for the second wild-card slot. Setbacks aside, the fact that the Panthers are even teetering toward making it in is a miracle.

“Oh, we’ve fought,” Tkachuk said. “We’ve fought from 10 points back to get ourselves in the mix. Just to be in the race at the end of the year, that’s all you want. That’s all you can ask for. But it’s hard to make the playoffs. I just think back to how around Christmas and early January we were not in a great spot standings-wise, and the fact that we’ve been able to fight our way back to being in the hunt here, it’s really good to be able to do that.”

It’s rare that Tkachuk doesn’t exude confidence. But the unfamiliar territory of jockeying this late in the season for a postseason future brought on unanticipated mental battles. Tkachuk hadn’t gone consecutive games without a point since late December until he failed to get on the scoresheet in Florida’s recent losses to the Rangers and Senators. That led to some internal reflection.

“I catch myself at times maybe trying a little bit too much,” Tkachuk said. “What works for me is what I have to do consistently night in and night out. I know that it will help our team if I’m playing and I’m going. I have to get back to my game. I haven’t maybe had my best last couple of games, but I still feel like my best hockey is yet to come. So hopefully I get a chance to show that here and help us make playoffs.”

Tkachuk’s teammates won’t bet against that. Forward Colin White knew Tkachuk well before they were Panthers and can attest that — even amid another potential career year — Tkachuk’s top qualities have remained the same.

“He just slows the game down better than anyone I’ve seen in a long time,” White said. “Around the front of the net, he’s always been amazing there and is now probably one of the best net-front guys in the NHL. But the way he slows things down when he gets the puck and can buy time for everyone is truly special.”

If it weren’t for the otherworldliness of one Connor McDavid (with 143 points and counting), Tkachuk might feature prominently in the Hart Trophy conversation. That’s not a place most pundits could have put Tkachuk even two years ago — just ask his coach.

Maurice saw plenty of Tkachuk from his perch behind the Winnipeg Jets bench from 2016-17 to 2020-21. He recognized Tkachuk then as a nuisance. It took getting to know Tkachuk in Florida for Maurice to realize the winger is so much more than an on-ice character.

“I had no idea truly how special his hands are. [And] he’s been an incredibly well-raised young man,” Maurice said. “[I say that] because for me, I’m just probably like you: He’s in Calgary. I’m in Winnipeg; I’m not thinking that on the bench. I’m thinking profanity. And that’s been the biggest [shift] … there’s a quiet maturation in his game. You go back and look and he’s had [12 penalty minutes] in about his last [23] games. We need him on the ice. So, his maturation as a player, his relationships with the referees, his relationships with the game [have evolved].”

It’s not only about how Tkachuk conducts himself on skates that has changed Maurice’s mind. Tkachuk’s presence in the Panthers’ dressing room swiftly brought to light more personality that Maurice didn’t expect to find.

“Matthew has incredible relationships with the support [staff],” the coach said. “Whether it’s the bus driver or therapists or the arena guys, and it’s every day and it’s ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ What a special young man.”

That’s the Tkachuk whom White has always known, with more depth than just an aggravating gnat in some post-whistle scrum.

“I think you see how competitive he is. He’s just got that mean streak and he’s not afraid,” White said. “But maybe you don’t see how much he cares. Not only about hockey but about you as a person and how you’re doing every day. Away from the rink he’s always texting guys and seeing how they’re doing. He’s just a great leader and a great friend.”

Tkachuk skillfully sidesteps talking about himself too much or delving into the details of what has allowed for his quick success in the Panthers’ lineup. With a simple shrug, Tkachuk acknowledges some guys would struggle after being traded, but says his Panthers’ teammates were so welcoming it made getting settled easy.

The change of scenery helped, too. Tkachuk admittedly enjoys the less taxing travel schedule playing in the Eastern Conference compared with the West. And he has taken advantage of more outdoor time. An avid golfer, Tkachuk said his game was “really good at the beginning of the year,” but when the Panthers buckled down post-Jan. 1 for their playoff push, he put extracurricular activities on the back burner.

Frankly, he’ll be happy not to wield a club again for weeks. If that’s the case, then Florida — and Tkachuk — have completed an improbable mission to regain postseason form.

“My off days I’m actually using to help myself,” Tkachuk said. “So that’s been a big difference. It’s that point in the year where you have to learn from each game because the next thing you realize, it’s a week from now and you’re out of it. And we want to stay in.”

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