Matthew Tkachuk cupped his right hand to his ear and reveled in the boos from the Edmonton Oilers’ crowd Monday in Canada. It only took him less than four minutes in his return to Alberta — for the first time as a member of the Florida Panthers — to once again antagonize Rogers Place by scoring the first goal in a heartbreaking 4-3, overtime loss and the All-Star left wing, ever the antagonist, was loving their reaction.
This is exactly how Tkachuk was advertised when the Panthers traded for him back in July. He was going to talk trash, back it up and laugh when his victim got angry. For 22 games, he has done it all, setting a franchise record for points in a player’s first 20 games, while also always being the feistiest player on the ice.
Florida paid a steep price to land Tkachuk — sending All-Star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames and a conditional first-round pick in the 2025 NHL Entry Draft — and he has been worth it, but it isn’t yet yielding results in the win column. As the Panthers and Flames meet for the second time since the blockbuster deal Tuesday in Calgary, Florida has a losing record and sits outside postseason position, with its chances to just make the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs down to about 65 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.
To start the week, the Panthers coughed away another potential victory by giving up a game-tying goal with 4.4 seconds left in Edmonton, then quickly surrendering a game-winning goal less than a minute into the extra session.
“That’s a tough one,” coach Paul Maurice said Monday, “when you lose it with five seconds on the clock.”
This was despite a goal and an assist for Tkachuk, and this is all despite 10 goals and 19 assists from the star forward in his debut season in Florida. At the same time, Huberdeau, who set the Panthers’ single-season record for points last year, has just three goals and seven assists, and Weegar has just five points.
Based on those numbers, Florida has won the trade so far. Based on the records, no one has — the Panthers and Flames are both sub-.500 teams with more than a quarter of the regular season done. Although plenty of advanced statistics still suggest Florida is one of the best teams in the NHL and Calgary is also very much in the thick of contention for the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, both look nothing like the Stanley Cup contenders they were a year ago.
For the Flames, part of the problem can certainly be traced back to the trade because Huberdeau is simply not producing at the level they expected, nor at the level Tkachuk did during the 2021-22 NHL season. After logging 115 points last season, Huberdeau is on pace for just 39 this year.
For the Panthers, Tkachuk is the least of their problems — although the loss of Huberdeau might be part of them. The trade was part of a stylistic overhaul, trying to put more of an emphasis on physicality and net-front play, and moving away from the wide-open, finesse style they rode to the Presidents’ Trophy — and a second-round exit from the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs — last year.
The result has been plenty of shots and scoring chances, and the league’s worst shooting percentage. For all Huberedau’s flaws, few players are better at creating open shots and easy tap-in goals for teammates.
Florida’s overtime record is telling, too: The NHL’s 3-on-3 overtime format is particularly conducive to high-skill, long-range passing plays and the Panthers have lost all three of their overtime games this year after winning 13 of 15 last season.
Right now, Tkachuk is doing all he can to carry the Panthers, he’s just now playing with a roster stuck between two different identities.
Tkachuk is the image Florida is trying to now build itself in and he’s proving it can work. It just hasn’t quite yet.
Said Maurice: “We know we can get better.”