Matthew Tkachuk of the Panthers returns to the province where he was loved and hated
For six seasons, Matthew Tkachuk wore the flamboyant Flames logo on his chest. But, on the eve of his return to Calgary, he kept the rhetoric cold.
« Obviously I thought about it, » Tkachuk said after his Florida Panthers skated in Edmonton late Monday morning before a game against the Oilers. « But, until we get to tomorrow, I probably won’t be able to give you a good answer on that. »
The NHL scheduler did his best to downplay the drama of a Tkachuk return. The Panthers play two road games in Alberta in two nights. First in Edmonton, where Tkachuk was public enemy No. 1 for six seasons.
Next, the Panthers are at the Saddledome on Tuesday, a place where Tkachuk was a hero.
There are no holidays to help build the hype and very few opportunities for the media to place the cameras and recorders in front of the American striker.
« It’s just another road trip right now, » Tkachuk said when asked what he’s expecting in Calgary. « This one (against Edmonton) doesn’t seem particularly special to me, but I’m sure tomorrow will be.
« We have tonight’s game, and our team is super focused on this one, and not allowing the emotion to look beyond this one. But tomorrow will be special for me, that’s for sure. «
Tkachuk, who had a 104-point season for the Flames in 2021-22 and amassed a total of 382 points for Calgary in six campaigns, was traded during the offseason to Florida for forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.
It was the kind of blockbuster trade you rarely see in the NHL, with so many teams hitting the ceiling. But it was part of Flames general manager Brad Treliving’s plan to rebuild his team on the fly, after star forward Johnny Gaudreau made the decision to sign as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Fast forward to this season, and Tkachuk has 27 points in 18 games for the Panthers, while Huberdeau has just 10 in 18 games for the Flames.
While Tkachuk wasn’t going to say anything that could be used as scoreboard material, his coach, Paul Maurice, had no problem raving about what Tkachuk brings to the Panthers.
« I don’t know if surprised is the right word, » said Maurice, who coached the Jets before taking the reins this season with the Panthers. « But in Winnipeg we would have seen quite a bit of him, and I didn’t fully understand his manual skills.
“He has an incredible ability to flip the pucks with his whole body, at different levels, and in so many restricted-area plays. What is unusual for him is that he can do it from the goal line to the back of the net.
« To see him in practice, to see the number of pucks he knocks down and nobody understands how he did that. »
Maurice said Tkachuk is a model team player, painting a different picture than the agitator who earned three suspensions and was the central figure in a famous fight between the Flames and Oilers in February 2021.
« The way he treats people off the ice is amazing, » Maurice said. « The coaches, the bus drivers, all the support staff, it’s really impressive to watch. He’s a very, very respectful young man who has been very successful. »
Maurice said the team is eagerly awaiting the reaction from Alberta fans, those who both hated and loved Tkachuk.
« I think our guys could benefit from that a bit, » he said. « They’re going to have a little fun with it, and it won’t be the first time Matthew has been booed in Alberta, so that’s fine. »
When asked if the boos would ring out when Oilers fans see Tkachuk in a Panthers jersey, he replied, « I have no idea. »
« It’s not my decision, » he said. « That’s what everyone here thinks, maybe you should ask them. »