Across The Hall: Matthew Tkachuk makes the Panthers rougher around the edges
Last season's Presidents' Trophy winners were already tough, now they're a little meaner
BUFFALO — Reputations are always earned. It’s too cliché, and sort of wrong, to say someone’s reputation precedes them. Their reputation is who they are and how they’re perceived depends on the point of view. In Matthew Tkachuk’s case, that reputation wouldn’t always say he’s the nicest of people. But one’s first impression isn’t always the one that lasts the longest.
“One year he hit me and I fell to the ice and tore the labrum in my shoulder so, yeah, he’s a pain in the ass, there’s no doubt about it,” Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s amazing to have him on your team. He brings everyone into the fight maybe on a night you’re not feeling it. You can feed off that energy.”
During Tkachuk’s first six seasons in the NHL with the Calgary Flames, he cemented himself as one of the league’s toughest goal scorers with an added bit of nastiness that can give him an advantage, particularly when the games get tighter.
In his time with the Flames, Tkachuk posted 382 points, 151 of those being goals, and piled up 425 penalty minutes. During his rookie season of 2016-2017 he had 105 penalty minutes which sent a message that he was not about to back down from any challengers.
According to HockeyFights.com, out of those 105 minutes only 15 came via fights. That’s a lot of extracurricular activity and served for a fast way to let the NHL take note there was a new irritant to deal with.
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“I had both of them (Matthew and Brady), they’re pests,” Buffalo Sabres coach Don Granato said. “They’re great kids, by the way, but that’s part of the league…You do go into a game and you do have to respect and recognize players that play with that kind of intensity and feistiness.”
Being a pest is not too common across the league. Matthew’s brother, Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators, is another one. The most infamous of the bunch is Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. Pests didn’t used to get respect.
Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke had a different word for players that toe, and often cross, the line between good, hard hockey and borderline dirty hockey in 2012 when he was general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs: They’re rats.
"I wonder about the accountability in our game and the notion that players would stick up for themselves and for each other," said Burke. "I wonder where we’re going with it, that’s the only lament I have on this. The fear that if we don’t have guys looking after each other that the rats will take this game over.”
The thing with Tkachuk though is he will back up his annoyance if he needs to. He’s been credited with 14 fights through his time with Calgary and sometimes the vexation he causes with rivals bleeds over after the game. Just ask Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings.
What started with a Tkachuk elbow to Doughty’s face in 2017 turned into a multi-season, multi-game feud which Doughty never missed an opportunity to discuss his disdain for his archenemy.
While that’s an explosive example of what Tkachuk’s play can do, how he becomes a nuisance for other teams is sometimes more of a slow burn than it is an inferno.
“(The Tkachuks) are skilled players, but they have that physical presence, and you know they can get under your skin,” Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons said. “Controlling the emotion against them is very key. You don’t want them to aggravate you to the level where you cannot play your game… If you get those emotions too high against them, they take advantage of you.”
Defensemen are generally the recipients of Tkachuk’s brand of misery and trying to wrangle a guy who plays the game like a slightly more polite version of Carl Racki from the movie Youngblood. Having to play heavy minutes against him means having the sort of patience needed to become a monk. Even trying to describe how to deal with him can be frustrating.
“For me, I’ve got to stay calm,” Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said. “I know he’s going to give me some tough shifts, but if I just stay calm and play my game and not really focus on him…he’s a great player, first of all, but he tries to get under people’s skin. He wants people to focus in on him rather than the game.”
Now with the Florida Panthers, there’s a wry smile that comes to his new teammates faces when talking about having him on their side. The Panthers weren’t lacking for toughness. You could even say they already have a player with that kind of dynamic in defenseman Radko Gudas. But with Patric Hornqvist hounding the front of the net and bothering goalies and defensemen alike and other rugged forwards like Ryan Lomberg, Nick Cousins, and Sam Bennett, adding Tkachuk to that mix should make the Panthers one of the most aggravating teams in the league to play against.
For new Panthers coach Paul Maurice, who saw plenty of Tkachuk when he coached the Winnipeg Jets, developing a game plan for him rather than against him is a welcome relief. It also gave him an opportunity to learn more about what makes him tick.
“The real pleasure is getting to know him as a person, as a man, how much he likes to talk about hockey,” Maurice said. “What I’ve enjoyed the most is how he’s treated the support staff. A young man who’s an elite player in this league, you always kind of watch that. I think he took the equipment guys and trainers out for dinner, I think, the first week he was here. He’s very kind and giving to the people, and then he gets on the ice and he’s an angry young man.”
Call a guy a pest, a rat, a pain in the ass all you want, having him on your side means he’s doing it to take care of the team, the family. Stirring the pot can take on a couple different meanings that way. But Tkachuk the player is as smart about the game itself as he is the trolling.
“I thought when I walked off the bench (Thursday night), that he hung behind the goal line too much, and then I watched it, and he was right like 95 percent of the time,” Maurice said. “So, he will be a player as a coach that you learn from. I’ll watch him play over and over and I’ll start to get a better understanding when to release back behind the net, you’re not cheating the game. His anticipation skills in behind are really strong. I’ve really enjoyed it. He’s multi-faceted, he’s more than just the guy that we see every time there’s a scrum on the ice.”
It was a common thread among those who discussed him that for as much as Tkachuk is a nuisance to opponents and they might hate playing against him, they respect his ability and his skill. Making your enemies have to begrudgingly say nice things about you might be the best trick he has.
“He’s got the best of kind of everything,” Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour said. “A lot of players are pests, but don’t have all the tools—he has them all. It’s great to have him on our side.”