It didn’t take Matthew Tkachuk very long to get on the wrong side of the NHL law during his initial days as a Florida Panther – 12 games, as a matter of fact.
Tkachuk was suspended two games by the league for high-sticking Kings goalie Jonathan Quick in the head Saturday night in Los Angeles. It was the fourth suspension of Tkachuk’s seven-year NHL career, and you can see why he thought he could do what he did – the last time he speared someone, he got suspended only for a single game.
Like his shenanigans or not, Tkachuk signed an eight-year, $76-million deal with the Panthers because he is an effective shift disturber. Florida cast aside the highly-skilled Jonathan Huberdeau after acquiring Tkachuk from Calgary in a blockbuster trade because team brass wanted an edgier, more antagonistic Panthers team than the one that was swept by arch-rival Tampa Bay in the second round of last season’s playoffs. Obviously, Florida wants Tkachuk playing in every game, but if this is the price they pay for Tkachuk’s reputation and skills at getting under opponents’ skin, they’re prepared to pay that price.
And make no mistake, Tkachuk’s aura as a pain-in-the-rear does not always hold up in statistical equivalents. Last season, Huberdeau had 99 hits and 63 takeaways in 80 games while Tkachuk had 93 hits and 41 takeaways in 82 games. The notion that Huberdeau is some deer-in-the-headlights while Tkachuk is the cynical taunter is not apparent in those details.
But there is something to be said for Tkachuk – the rich man’s Tom Wilson. Now, Wilson has a Cup ring in a special place at home while Tkachuk hasn’t made it past the second round. But GM Bill Zito & Co. made a tactical choice to bring in a known quantity in Tkachuk and make the Panthers actively more troublesome to play against.
The offense the 24-year-old Tkachuk brings is a huge part of his tool set, but when it comes to pushing your opponent to their mental limits, Tkachuk has few peers. Call it trash talk if you want, but if it leaves the other side making errors out of frustration with his abrasive ways, Tkachuk has no fear of being disliked, so long as it means he’s on the winning side.
We’re not suggesting the Panthers won their trade with Calgary. There may come a day where Tkachuk really not only steps over the line, but runs over it, and he’ll be out of the lineup in important games where his absence on the scoresheet will be pronounced. Players like him often wind up hit harder by the league’s disciplinary system because the sheer amount of suspensions will eventually pile up and look even worse and tacitly accepted in retrospect.
The Panthers’ mediocre start to the season isn’t Tkachuk’s fault. He leads the team in assists (12) and points (17). He’s also averaging 21:46 of ice time, second only among Florida forwards to star center Aleksander Barkov (23:06). Panthers coach Paul Maurice clearly trusts Tkachuk, and the team has benefitted from his addition. Sure, they’d prefer him to be more level-headed, but if that removed Tkachuk’s passion for the other elements of the game, Florida would be getting half the player.
Like Wilson, Tkachuk has earned his share of detractors. But if the league truly wanted the egregious actions of those players, they’d have both received much harsher suspensions than they’re received thus far. Instead, taps on the wrist – which, make no mistake, Tkachuk’s newest suspension qualifies as.
This is why Zito went out and dealt for Tkachuk. He can make a difference on the scoresheet and be one of the NHL’s top point-getters. Florida wouldn’t have moved a star like Huberdeau if they felt they’d be getting a one-dimensional circus act. Tkachuk’s all-around game is what makes him valuable, and why the Panthers undoubtedly will shrug off this current suspension as the cost of Tkachuk doing business.