When Matthew Tkachuk was traded to the Florida Panthers, the hockey world was left both shocked and awed.
The shock came from the fact a blockbuster trade was consummated in the dead of the offseason. It was announced after 11 p.m. ET on a Friday in late July.
The awe stemmed from the Calgary Flames’ haul: Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and a first-round pick.
The questions came from all around the hockey community about what Florida general manager Bill Zito could’ve been thinking.
Just a month earlier, he’d replaced his 2022 Jack Adams Award finalist Andrew Brunette with veteran Paul Maurice, who had abruptly resigned as coach of the Winnipeg Jets midseason during 2021-22. Now, he’d traded the team’s top defenseman and its all-time leading scorer.
But it’s hard to question any of Zito’s moves now, and downright impossible to argue against the deal for Tkachuk after he scored three game-winning goals in the Eastern Conference Final — two in overtime, including the series-clincher with 4.9 seconds left in Game 4 that sent Florida to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996.
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That Tkachuk has become the modern version of Claude Lemieux isn’t all that stunning. After all, he was the No. 6 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft and has great pedigree as the first-born son of the ornery, highly skilled and universally beloved ex-NHL forward Keith Tkachuk.
He had a flare from the dramatic even in Calgary, with 16 career game-winning goals before coming south.
“He used to do that to us in Winnipeg,” Maurice said after Game 4. “[Tkachuk] used to score that same way, with two minutes left on the clock after agitating the entire bench. He is a gifted, gifted man.”
Tkachuk has not only ascended to the moment but dragged the Panthers with him. Florida had a tenacious, skilled, and opportunistic team when it won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22. Yet it was clearly missing a piece when it was swept out of the postseason in the second round by the rival Tampa Bay Lightning — the second straight season the Panthers were eliminated by their hated rival.
In the risk-averse hockey world, where executives treat their drafted-and-developed stars like porcelain dolls, no one would’ve batted an eye if Zito decided to run it back this season.
Maybe Weegar and Huberdeau, who had exceptional chemistry with linemate and captain Aleksander Barkov, would’ve helped Florida to more than 92 regular-season points. Maybe Brunette could’ve built on his success as he did as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, aiding their 49-point improvement in the standings.
But there’s no way they would’ve had the impact of Tkachuk this postseason, and it’s been more than just big goals and the franchise record for points in a single playoff year.
Tkachuk has oozed confidence while chewing on his misshapen mouthpiece all postseason. This was never more evident than in the Panthers’ first-round series against the heavily favored Boston Bruins where he scored five goals — including an OT winner in an elimination game — and 11 points in seven games where the Panthers turned around a 3-1 series deficit and won three games on the road.
“I think that series set ourselves up for even more confidence,” Tkachuk told the NHL on TNT after Game 4. “Anytime you’re playing the No. 1 team in NHL history, you know how big of an underdog you are. So I think we gained a lot of confidence from that series.”
Tkachuk said no one believed the Panthers could go on this run except the guys in the room. Yet, it was through his lead, as well as his preparation and off-ice demeanor, that his teammates could buy in.
“He’s unbelievable,” Barkov said. “Everyone sees what he’s doing on the ice, but off-ice, it’s been eye-opening how great of a person he is, and how he breathes hockey and everything around it every day. It’s unreal.”
That success has led the much-maligned and emotionally scarred Florida fan base to believe as well. Panthers fans have been down bad since the Year of the Rat in 1996. Their team had won just 12 postseason games — not including the 2020 qualifying round — and one playoff series in 26 years entering this season.
But the Panthers have one more hill to climb and more potential history to create: They’ve never won a Stanley Cup Final game. Tkachuk rightly pointed out they’ll be underdogs again in the Cup Final, a role Florida has embraced all postseason.
“The people in this [South Florida] area support and believe in us, but there’s not many people out there that do, still,” Tkachuk said. “I know that we’ve played some really good teams, and we know that the next team is going to be unbelievable, as well.”
Tkachuk’s swagger has now fully rubbed off on the Panthers locker room, and Florida has lost just one game in the past month.
Count them out at your own risk.