Two leaders, two different personalities: Opposites attract for Panthers in Barkov, Tkachuk
One has been a mainstay on the Florida Panthers’ roster for a decade. He has grown from a quiet point producer to a slightly less quiet team captain, the player everyone on the team points to as its undisputed leader in the dressing room and who many refer to as one of the best (albeit underrated) two-way centers in the league who rarely takes a penalty.
The other is the fresh-faced newcomer on the roster yet a burgeoning star in his own right with a lot of spunk and a lot of skill to back it up. He’s the brash, tell-it-like-it-is 25-year-old who Florida acquired in the blockbuster trade of the offseason last summer to give the Panthers some much-needed edge.
Together, these two juxtaposing forces in Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk form the backbone of this Panthers roster both in the present and the future. Both are locked in to eight-year deals, keeping them under contract through the 2029-2030 season.
Together, they are representing the hometown Panthers at the 2023 NHL All-Star Game at their home arena, Sunrise’s FLA Arena, on Saturday.
“The cornerstone will be represented,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “They should be here.”
The two are part of a bigger plan than just representing Florida at All-Star Games. They are the centerpieces to what the Panthers hope will be long-term sustainability and success. It hasn’t worked out so far this season. Florida entered the All-Star Break with a 24-22-6 record and is facing an uphill climb for a wild card spot into the Stanley Cup playoffs with two-and-a-half months left to play.
But Barkov and Tkachuk, both either in or entering the prime of their careers, give the Panthers a dynamic one-two punch of superstars that, with the right pieces around them, should help them remain annual contenders for that elusive Stanley Cup.
“That’s two of our core players,” Panthers CEO Matt Caldwell said. “That’s why we’re so excited about our future and we’re certainly not giving up on this season, and the guys are going to battle and battle, but it’s the next five-plus years, too. In hockey especially, you want to be good, you want to be in your window, the prime of your career and you’re not just going for it in one year. You want to be good for five-plus years straight, and then one of those years you finally break through and win.”
The quiet captain
Barkov had just gotten off the phone with Panthers general manager Bill Zito on Jan. 26 for what was a celebratory conversation. Florida’s top-line center was being added to the All-Star roster, replacing Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews.
How did the chat go?
“I probably didn’t sound too excited on the phone,” Barkov said a day later, a slight grin emerging on his face.
There’s a reason for that. Barkov prides himself on staying stoic, even-keeled. He will deflect individual praise for the betterment of the team. His focus is singular.
“I just do my job,” Barkov said. “My main priority is not to make All-Star Games or anything like that. It’s to come to the rink and do my thing as well as possible, and it doesn’t matter what time of the year it is.”
Now, this All-Star appearance does mean something to Barkov. It’s taking place in his backyard, in the place where he has called home for a decade now. It didn’t ruin any real vacation plans he had in place — “I may miss a couple of trips to the beach,” he quipped, “but I wasn’t going anywhere” — and it gives him a chance to show the rest of the NHL’s top players how he lives on a daily basis.
“We’re gonna see some sunburns the next couple days,” Barkov said.
It’s also another chance for the forward to have his skills shown on a national scale.
He has 600 career points, becoming the second player in Panthers franchise history to hit that milestone. He is now 13 points from tying close friend and former teammate Jonathan Huberdeau’s franchise points record.
He won the Frank J. Selke Trophy, given to the best two-way forward in the league, in 2021 and was a finalist for the award last season as well. He won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, given to the top scoring player who commits the fewest penalties, in 2019 and has been a finalist for the award two other times (and likely will be among the top three again this year).
“The things he does in practice kind of go unnoticed until you see him do it every day,’’ forward Sam Reinhart said. “It is pretty ridiculous the kind of things he can do. Any time you get to play with a guy of that caliber, you try and take advantage of it.”
But perhaps most importantly, Barkov has become comfortable in his own skin and is more open about being the veteran voice in the dressing room. The Panthers named him team captain ahead of the 2018-19 season, an accolade he said was “probably the biggest honor I’ve had in my life.” It was a reward for what he did on the ice to that point, and a challenge to get him to exude that same confidence off of it.
The evolution of Aleksander Barkov came shortly after that. The quiet center from Finland was talking more, providing more input with his teammates and skill playing at an All-World level. He has become proficient in dry sarcasm. His body language almost always exudes confidence nowadays, the secondary response of him breaking out of his shell personally.
And his presence is perhaps most noticed when he’s not there.
Take this season, for example. Barkov has missed 10 games this season, seven due to illness and three after being checked in the knee by the New Jersey Devils’ Nico Hischier. The Panthers went 2-6-2 in those games. Since returning from the knee injury on Dec. 29, Barkov has 25 points in his past 17 games. Florida has gone 9-6-2 in that stretch.
“It’s everything,” Tkachuk said of Barkov’s value to the team. “I think the way you can really tell is when he was out of the lineup we’re just a completely different team. A lot of guys, when he was out at the beginning of the year, did step up and definitely improve the way they were playing to make up for that loss, but you can’t do it and when he came back he really changed our team.”
The vocal newcomer
Tkachuk was talking a little lighthearted smack — what else would he be doing? — about his younger brother Thursday when, suddenly, he spotted him striding in his direction. Brady Tkachuk, the not-so-little little brother, plopped down in the seat next to Tkachuk and so much became immediately clear.
“I always was able to overpower him,” Tkachuk was saying, recalling his childhood competitions with his younger brother, “but look at him: He’s a mammoth of a man.”
Now, the younger brother has about two inches and 20 pounds on Tkachuk. He has the same sort of on-ice edge as his older brother, too, because how else are you supposed to survive a childhood with Tkachuk as your older brother of two years?
“Just to survive in our matchups, just to kind of give myself a chance, that’s what I needed to do,” he said Thursday, “get dirty at times.”
Even when his younger brother would beat him in something, Tkachuk didn’t have any place for compassion.
“I probably had the advantage on him in Xbox,” the younger brother said with a smile, blissfully unaware Tkachuk had just conceded this point a few minutes earlier by saying, “I was the normal sport guy, outside like it should be.”
Ask just about any of the 44 All-Stars, and they’ll confess something like grudging respect for the high-scoring forward.
Maybe they’ve scrapped with him at some point or thought he took a cheap shot once.
Or maybe they just hate his constant barbs and trash talk and the way his drool-caked mouth guard always seems to be hanging out of his mouth.
Maybe they hate all these things a little bit more because he’s also tied for sixth in the NHL with 66 points and one of the most obvious All-Star selections the league had to make for this game.
“He’s a very good player and he has all the skills to back it up,” All-Star forward Kevin Hayes said Thursday. “It’s hard to find agitators that put up the points.”
It’s something he has had as long as anyone can remember.
What was Tkachuk like as a 7-year-old in minor ice hockey?
“He was kind of what you see now,” his younger brother said. “He kind of just dominated and had that aggression, too, that everyone likes.”
How much did his father, whose 2,219 penalty minutes are third most in NHL history among players with at least 500 goals, make this all happen?
“Keith [Tkachuk] has probably told them to do it more,” said Hayes, who’s a cousin of the Tkachuks and now stars for the Philadelphia Flyers.
After their second-round exit from the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Panthers felt like this edge was just what they needed. They never admitted they felt like they were a soft team last year, but they did spend a big part of their offseason trying to change their image by getting a defensive-minded coach in Paul Maurice and a notorious pest in Tkachuk.
No matter how mixed most of Tkachuk’s new teammates feelings were when Florida traded Huberdeau and star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames to get him in the offseason, forwards Sam Bennett and Ryan Lomberg both knew the Panthers were in for something special.
Both played with Tkachuk in Alberta and excitedly reached out to the winger after hearing news of the deal. Bennett knew he would change Florida for the better. Lomberg knew it wouldn’t be an issue for Tkachuk to fit in with the Panthers, no matter what sort of reputation he has.
His history with Tkachuk goes back even further than their time together with the Flames. In 2015, Lomberg and Tkachuk were rivals in the United States Hockey League, and “butted heads,” Lomberg said. There were never any fights, but the physical style they both play meant there was no avoiding some battles.
Fast forward three years. Tkachuk was already established in Calgary. Lomberg was still bouncing between the NHL and American Hockey League. Tkachuk did all he could to make it easy for his former junior ice hockey rival.
“Being a guy that’s in between there, you want to feel a part of it. You want to feel like you’re contributing in any way and it’s as simple as just a simple conversation involving guys that aren’t that comfortable,” Lomberg said. “That’s something I learned for him. ... Any time there’s a guy that’s called up or a newly acquired guy, I definitely go out of my way to make them feel involved because I remember what a difference it made for myself.”
Of course, feeling like part of Tkachuk’s team also means being the victim of some his trash talk.
“From the outside looking in, it may seem like he’s making fun of somebody, but in the locker room it’s the opposite,” Lomberg said. “You chirp the guys you’re close with.”
In Florida, Tkachuk brought his playful pestering to the ice before training camp even began.
He also took just about everyone around the team out for dinner — from teammates to trainers — and it let everyone get a look at the full Tkachuk experience right away.
“He’s a leader,” Lomberg said. “He brings a different type of atmosphere — family style, together — so it’s great. I can’t say enough about him.”
Two stars co-existing
In essence, Barkov and Tkachuk complement each other. Their stark contrasts in personality — at least externally — creates a balancing act of sorts, a Yin and Yang among Florida’s elite players.
So what’s the chain of command between the two?
It’s simple, really.
“He’s the leader,” Tkachuk said of Barkov.
That said, both players expressed their appreciation for the other as they prepared to play in Saturday’s All-Star Game. Barkov quipped he felt he has known Tkachuk for nearly 10 years despite only being teammates with him for a matter of months.
“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Barkov said. “He’s tremendous.”
Tkachuk praised Barkov’s ability to impact “all aspects of the game” and how the effort seen on gameday is mirrored on practice days.
“Very special,” Tkachuk said.
Can that translate to more accomplishments beyond the two playing in the All-Star Game this weekend? That will be the biggest question.