NHL - US Sports: What can Matthew Tkachuk offer to Florida Panthers?
In a blockbuster trade the Florida Panthers acquired rugged forward Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames in exchange for forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenceman MacKenzie Weegar.
The Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy as the team with the best record in the NHL regular season last season, but they couldn't translate their high-scoring form into the playoffs, losing in four games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
The sweep raised concerns for General Manager Bill Zito, who replaced coach Andrew Brunette with former Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice and traded two of the franchise's biggest names for Tkachuk.
Offense ran dry
The Panthers were one of the best offensive teams in NHL history over the 2021/22 regular season. Florida’s average of 4.15 goals-per-game was exactly one goal per game better than the NHL average, the 19th-best scoring attack ever.
The departing Huberdeau led the way with 30 goals and 115 points, followed by Aleksandar Barkov (39 and 88) and Sam Reinhart (33 and 82).
All season long the Panthers relied heavily on their offense to either build up big leads or mount stunning comebacks. Their 24 wins from behind led the NHL and included 11 when trailing after two periods.
In the playoffs the Panthers had some success, winning their first series since 2006 against the Washington Capitals over six games in the first round.
Their glee was short-lived, however, as their offense was completely shut down by the battle-tested Lightning in round two, who dumped them out in a sweep.
The Panthers were limited to a messily 0.75 goals per game against Tampa Bay, the second-biggest offensive shortfall compared to a team's regular season average in any best-of-seven series in all of NHL post season history.
Additionally, Florida went 1-for-13 (7.7%) on the powerplay, which was part of a frustrating 1-for-31 (3.2%) in the playoffs after having the league's fifth-best power play percentage (24.4%) during the regular season.
Moving on from Huberdeau
After recording franchise best numbers in the regular season, Huberdeau was limited to just one goal in ten playoff games, plus four assists for five points.
The post-season campaign was Huberdeau's fourth in ten seasons with the Panthers which has accumulated just the single series win over the Capitals.
In 25 career playoff appearances, Huberdeau has five goals, 16 assists for 21 points.
After the recent disappointment GM Zito clearly decided enough was enough with silky-smooth Huberdeau, instead turning to the five-years younger and more rugged Tkachuk.
The move may also indicate that the Panthers weren't confident of being able to lock down Huberdeau or indeed Weegar, who will both be unrestricted free agents next summer.
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Built for playoffs
Tkachuk had a career best 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points for the Flames in the regular season and, although slightly less than Huberdeau's franchise best numbers, Zito is trusting that Tkachuk's style of game will be more impactful when it matters most, in the playoffs.
On arriving in Florida, 24-year-old Tkachuk signed an eight-year, $76-million contract, solving any concerns that Zito may have had about losing a star to free agency.
Describing Tkachuk as a "tenacious, physical competitor who possesses a unique skill set", Zito has made it clear what he felt has been missing for the Panthers.
A level of grit and hard-nosed play which often rises to the surface in the playoffs. Something Tkachuk has in spades, without sacrificing too much offensive punch - he had four goals, six assists for ten points in 12 playoff games with the Flames.
He plays a more direct game than Huberdeau and isn't afraid to go to the hard areas where goals are often found in the playoffs when teams tighten up defensively.
Tkachuk has consistently has a high rate of inner-slot shots, and his ability to play that net-front role will certainly help the Panthers powerplay in the post-season too.
Place in the line-up
Tkachuk had a +57 plus/minus rating in the regular season, better than Huberdeau's respectable +35 and the additional defensive responsibility in the winger slot will likely make the Panthers harder to beat in the playoffs too.
Tkachuk may play with Aleksandar Barkov, giving Florida two elite two-way players on one line.
Or they could create a one-two punch, with the duo split between a top-six which contains the talents of Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart or Anton Lundell to balance up the line-up.
All eyes on Panthers
Huberdeau was a model citizen in Florida and fans respected his game. Tkachuk, however, is a much bigger personality who has already endeared himself to the Florida faithful by declaring his dislike for their biggest rivals, the Lightning.
A marketer's dream, Tkachuk and the Panthers will either be loved or hated moving forwards, but neither he nor Zito will care if the gutsy move pays dividends and has them seriously challenging for a Stanley Cup in the near future.