After last season’s breakout, what does Matthew Tkachuk do for an encore?


CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov set a low bar for Matthew Tkachuk.

At least, before they became Florida Panthers teammates.

“When I used to play against him when he was in Calgary, I would have never thought that I’m going to like the guy,” Barkov told ESPN this month. “He was just, like, a pain in the ass. He was always in your face. Obviously, he’s an unbelievable player but everything that came with him, all the scrums, I just never thought I’d like the guy so much. And then we met here [in Florida] and boom — he’s definitely one of the best guys to be around.”

Consider this the era of Tkachuk 2.0. The 25-year-old still has his rough edges, his sandpaper qualities, his uncanny ability to disturb and disrupt just about anyone he chooses between — and sometimes after — the whistles. But that’s not all Tkachuk is, or ever was. It just took moving 3,000 miles from Calgary to Florida for some to take notice of what truly makes Tkachuk tick.

And it’s not some on-ice schtick.

“I was surprised with his personality last year,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He was in Calgary [before]; I was [coaching] in Winnipeg. We didn’t like each other very much. I thought there’s a chance that the guy on the ice was the guy off the ice and it’s not. As talented as he is, it’s actually kind of his humility, the way he treats the people around him, the way he treats his teammates; he’s a good human. He’s consistent with that daily. He had a big year and got a lot of press coverage. He hasn’t changed one bit, right? He’s a big part of our culture here.”

Over the span of one season in South Florida, Tkachuk proved he’s not merely a pest. The St. Louis native is an undeniable cornerstone of the Panthers’ evolution, a linchpin bringing together the club’s past with its present — and its increasingly hopeful future.

It was Tkachuk, after all, who garnered ample credit for spearheading Florida’s unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring. He put together a career-best season, was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and rightly earned acknowledgement as a potential Conn Smythe candidate.

Stack it all up and that’s a breakout season in its own right — even for a now-eight-year pro such as Tkachuk. You could practically anoint him as the face of Florida’s whole franchise.

Mention that possibility to Tkachuk, though, and you’ll get a deep wince. A sigh. And a staunch rebuttal laced with surprising humility from a player typecast by inherent bravado.

“I am not the face,” Tkachuk insists. “We’ve got Barky. He’s the guy and will always be the guy. I really just try to fly under the radar and work as hard as I can. I’m surrounded by more talent than people could ever imagine here. So, I’m very lucky. There’s a lot of players in the hockey world that get a lot more recognition and deserve it. I’m cool with just trying to work as hard as I possibly can.”

Tkachuk is pleasantly earnest. He’s not trying to court attention. If anything, there’s comfort in being inconspicuous. There’s an autonomy Florida offers which Calgary, perhaps, just couldn’t. Tkachuk pushed his way out of the Flames’ organization for a reason. He has spent the year since illustrating why it was the best decision for him — as a player and person — to grab hold of a fresh start.

He wants to be a leader now.

“I’ve got a big personality, so I’m probably talking more than the average player in hockey,” Tkachuk said. “I play a certain style and … it can help make us successful. I’d say my best qualities [are about] wanting to be consistent day in and day out. I have a routine that I love. So, whether it’s Day 1 of the season or the dog days or playoffs, it all stays the same. I just try to be consistent in everything I do. And I think that’s a good leadership trait.”

THE STORY OF Tkachuk’s exodus to Florida is well-known.

It was July 2022 when Tkachuk — a restricted free agent already in arbitration with Calgary over a new contract — informed the Flames he wasn’t interested in signing a long-term deal. That wasn’t welcome news to Calgary, who had drafted Tkachuk sixth overall in 2016 — but then-GM Brad Treliving made the most of an undesirable situation. He quickly orchestrated a sign-and-trade with the Panthers that sent Tkachuk — after inking an eight-year, $76 million pact — and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2025 to Florida in exchange for Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt and a lottery-protected first-round draft pick in 2025.

The blockbuster transaction made sense given Tkachuk’s 2021-22 season was the best of his career, producing 42 goals and 104 points in 82 games.

He was even better in Panthers red and gold — not just statistically, but across the board.

Tkachuk launched the 2022-23 season with five goals and 13 points in his first nine games. He carried that momentum all the way to an NHL All-Star selection — the second of his career — and was named MVP of the All-Star Game itself after scoring four goals and seven points in front of the hometown crowd.

By that point in early February, it seemed like Tkachuk couldn’t get much better. Even to himself.

“I would say last year during the stretch towards the middle of the season, I felt I took a little bit of a step from the season before,” he said. “And even from the first half of the year. If I’m honest, numbers mean absolutely nothing to me; I don’t judge my success by that. Like, I’ve played some of my best games and there’s been nothing to show for it. I think I can tell I’m playing my best when from the first shift to the last shift, I’m doing something each and every shift. It could be anything. But it’s about making an impact from the first shift to last shift, and then I’m really happy and I feel there was a big stretch last year I did that.”

Tkachuk was flying high at that stage, but the Panthers as a whole left something to be desired. Florida held a middling 24-22-6 record at the All-Star break, placing them fifth in the Atlantic Division and five points out of an Eastern Conference wild-card playoff spot.

That was a tough pill to swallow for Florida given they were reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners on the heels of a historic 122-point regular season. They were at risk of not making the postseason at all.

Tkachuk was a catalyst in turning the team’s fortunes around.

Florida recharged and went all-out, getting help along the way from clubs that stumbled (ahem, Pittsburgh) to secure the final wild-card spot by a single point.

Tkachuk had 12 points in the Panthers’ final seven games to finish the regular season with 40 goals and 109 points (a new career high) over 79 games.

And he didn’t stop rolling from there.

He collected five goals and 11 points in Florida’s shocking first-round series win over the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins, was a conscientious contributor in their second-round victory over Toronto and tallied four goals in four games through the Panthers’ sweep of Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals.

Florida was bound for a Stanley Cup Final with Tkachuk leading the way.

Then, disaster struck.

Florida was already trailing Vegas 2-0 in the Final when Tkachuk fractured his sternum off an open-ice hit from Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar in Game 3. Tkachuk battled to finish, and then dressed for Game 4. But Tkachuk knew he “wasn’t himself” and ultimately sat out Game 5.

The Panthers lost 9-3 that night without him. Vegas hoisted the Cup in front of them. All Tkachuk could do was watch his own dream of doing just that fade away. It took time for that frustration to fully disappear; now he can reflect on it as a teachable moment.

“I feel a sense of pride with knowing what we know from experience last year and what we gained from that,” Tkachuk said. “I think there’s not a lot of people that are really giving us as fair of a chance [this year] as we think we have in this room. But that’s okay. We don’t care what anybody says. We are confident in what we have. We have a great locker room. Last year, we were written off the whole year. Part of that could be that Florida is just an underrated market. And it doesn’t matter. We’re really happy with us.”

Tkachuk recognizes and appreciates the freedom players have in Florida to simply be themselves — on or off the ice. It wasn’t always the case in Calgary.

“I know it’s going to sound ridiculous,” he started, “But like over there, it was kind of like, Darryl [Sutter] was our coach and we played that type of style, where it was hard-nosed and hitting players and being bullies and we were one of the toughest teams and biggest teams. Here, we’re not one of the biggest teams or the toughest team, but the way we work and the skill and the competitiveness, it’s just as much as it was over there.”

The Panthers have used freedom offered by Maurice and his staff to figure out their own problems — and find a workable solution together.

“I saw it last year definitely down the stretch,” said Tkachuk. “When our backs were against the wall, you really could see what the true character was of the team and the true determination. Everyone says we got hot at the right time. Well, it’s more than that. Like, you have to have the pillars in place to have success, and I felt like we built that over the course of the year and we’re continuing to piggyback on that.”

That’s where Tkachuk’s story loops back into Barkov’s, and culture, and how an unlikely odd couple are setting a tone for the Panthers to live by.

TKACHUK WON’T WILLINGLY take a back seat to anyone.

Except Barkov.

“I try to try to follow him in each of the [practice] drills to try to learn from him, because no one works harder on or off ice,” said Tkachuk. “He’s a great guy for me to learn [from]. He’s unbelievable, really. Barkov is one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever played with, and our relationship is as good as it can get. We push each other.”

It’s noted to Tkachuk that he and Barkov — selected second overall by Florida in 2013 and team captain since 2018 — seem like exact opposites (Barkov is soft-spoken where Tkachuk is more high-spirited). That brings a knowing grin to crease Tkachuk’s cheeks.

“We definitely have different personalities,” he laughs. “But it meshes together perfectly. He is such a great leader and I definitely try to drive the culture by [emulating] those types of leaders. And I’m just so super thankful that I have somebody like that I can look up to. It really is natural and easy when you have a guy like Barky who just does everything the right way.”

Barkov knew Tkachuk would be a presence, but the level of positive impact he would have so soon was less anticipated.

“He came in and right away, he’s just like a main part of the team and just everyone sees how he acts,” said Barkov. “The things he does for the trainers, for the staff, for the players here in the room. Right away from the beginning, that was very impressive to see, and to have him here and to do what he does is just amazing.”

Maurice’s take is that it’s Tkachuk and Barkov who are examples to everyone else in Florida’s dressing room. It’s an admittedly eclectic place as it is, yet somehow, those two are bridging the gaps.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of unique guys, unusual personalities,” said Maurice. “There’s a good story in every stall: funny, quirky, and some tough men in there too. All of them are good stories, and [Tkachuk] is one of them. He’s an elite athlete with an incredible set of hands and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it’s like he has no ego. But he does, right, because he’s driven; he wants the puck in the big times. You can feel it, you can see it. But in terms of relating to his teammates, he’s one of 13 forwards, one of 23 guys. There’s nobody else exalting themselves in that room. And [Tkachuk] and [Barkov] are just like anyone else.”

Tkachuk’s intention is to personify the Panthers’ values, via the groundwork started by Barkov and with a mantle Tkachuk is happy to assume.

“The two of us try to drive that [messaging],” said Tkachuk. “It’s good for new people to come in to see how things run here and how you have to do it on and off the ice; otherwise, you’re really probably not going to fit in if you don’t do it that way. So, I think the culture here is really something special. And it’s a really fun and easy locker room to come into, with bright people and great people, and if you treat people right and work as hard as you can on the ice, it’ll be perfect for you.”

THE IDEAL PLAYER-COACH relationship may not exist.

But Tkachuk and Maurice come close.

The veteran bench boss knows how — and when — to push Tkachuk’s buttons, without nudging him too far. It’s why Tkachuk considers Maurice one of the best coaches, if not the best, he has ever had.

“He’s harder on me than any other one has been but in a good way,” said Tkachuk. “He’s given me the freedom to do some things that might be a little bit different, that maybe fit my skill set a bit, but he gives me the confidence to go out there and play the exact way I know how. The expectation is just for me to lead and play the right way and be competitive and play hard each and every night. So, I think he’s been amazing for me and really has turned me into a way better player than I was before and helping me and changing my game a bit.”

Those adjustments must continue this season, particularly on the defensive side. While Tkachuk was able to rehab from his injury and return in time for training camp, Florida won’t have either Aaron Ekblad or Brandon Montour available to start the year following their respective offseason shoulder surgeries. Tkachuk is prepared to do his part filling the void in their absences.

“We have to; we have no choice,” he said. “We’re missing two real key guys back there. It’s going to have to be a by-committee thing. I’m sure everybody says that, but I like how we have a lot of guys that are hungry and want to prove something and want to make a difference. That’s true on my end too, the forwards are going to have to help out, too. We have a pretty good grasp on what works for our team and what works in the NHL, and it took us a little while to get [to that point] last year. We’re hoping to start getting there sooner this time.”

If they do, it’s likely Tkachuk will be at the forefront of the team’s success. The formula he began working with last season led to award accolades Tkachuk hadn’t garnered before, including the Hart Trophy nomination.

Tkachuk demurs, in typical fashion, from reveling in that achievement. It isn’t what he’s after. Tkachuk got a taste of the true end game last spring, when Florida was three wins away from a Cup.

The Panthers could get there again. The outcome might be different. Tkachuk would help make it so. Florida’s a tight-knit team, and there’s a palpable belief in the group already that they’re being underestimated. Tkachuk knows as much. And if he won’t accept being the organization’s face, then Tkachuk is undoubtedly its heartbeat.

That’s more than good enough for now.

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