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Matthew Tkachuk thrives in Florida as Darryl Sutter dives into unemployment



Matthew Tkachuk

You know how sometimes people pile on a person when they’re down?

This is another one of those times.

The Calgary Flames fired Darryl Sutter a week ago in the wake of their failed season. The move came following exit interviews with players, personnel and even “prominent agents” conducted by Don Maloney, the team’s newly-appointed president of hockey operations, who is also serving as interim general manager after Brad Treliving walked away from the job three weeks ago.

“It became clear to me we needed a new voice to guide us forward,” Maloney said on Monday.

Later the same day, star Flames forward Jonathan Huberdeau stated on a French-language podcast hosted by Bob Hartley — also a former Flames coach with the reputation of being hard on players who was fired the season following one that saw him win NHL coach of the year honours — that he “didn’t really click” with Sutter in “a lot of factors.”

That’s a critical frankness we don’t often hear from a crucial player, in this case Calgary’s central and most-prominent dressing-room figure whose eight-year contract extension worth $10.5-million per year starts next season.

Huberdeau, of course, was the key piece of last summer’s trade that saw another player who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Sutter move to the Florida Panthers.

And what’s interesting in Matthew Tkachuk’s case these days is that he’s “loved every minute” of playing for his new coach, Paul Maurice, as the Panthers continue to surprise the NHL world in the playoffs.

“He’s been somebody that I’ve just really enjoyed playing for,” Tkachuk said of playing for Maurice Tuesday — the day after Sutter’s firing — prior to puck-drop on the start of the Panthers’ second-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He’s very smart, just not even just talking hockey on non-game days, just what’s going on around the league. He’s very bright and somebody that I’ve learned a lot from and I’ve enjoyed playing from so much. I know everybody else has as well.

“He’s somebody that’s personally taken my game and made me a way better player.”

High praise for the coach, indeed. And why not: Tkachuk recorded a personal best points-wise this season, notching 109 of them, five better than his previous high set last year with the Calgary Flames.

But can it be this simple? Could Tkachuk surviving and thriving in the NHL playoffs simply be a matter of him finding the right coach at the right time?

It appears to be the case.

The star 25-year-old winger has been the critical ingredient in whatever recipe Maurice has been whipping up behind the bench.

Tkachuk has led the way in more than just the points department (he’s tied for second in playoff scoring with 15 points heading into action today.) He’s been physical, he’s gotten into the heads of his opponents — first, the top-ranked Boston Bruins, who the Panthers surprisingly eliminated in the first round, and now the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are down 2-0 in their second-round series with Florida — and just as much has brought a swagger to the scene in a way few players do in any NHL postseason.

Of course, a lot of that sounds familiar to Flames fans. Tkachuk had blossomed into a top-line producer alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm to form the NHL’s top forward unit in 2021-22. His prowess as a pest had been on display the entire time, starting in his rookie season in 2016-17.

It’s not to say Tkachuk didn’t learn things and mature as a player under Sutter, who lasted a little more than two years as Flames coach. After all, he broke the 40-goal and 100-point marks for the first time in 2021-22 under Sutter while playing on that NHL-best line. Sutter was even named the league’s coach of the year.

“There’s a lot that went into it,” Tkachuk said in July of his decision to leave Calgary. “There’s no single reason why I left.”

There’s the departure of Gaudreau, too. Johnny Hockey chose to walk away from the Flames as an unrestricted free agent to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets. That likely played a part in Tkachuk’s decision. He had been expressing a desire to stay in Calgary before Gaudreau departed.

Darryl Sutter

Darryl Sutter

And while Tkachuk’s decision to engineer a trade to the Panthers last summer can’t be solely pinned on his relationship with Sutter — he had signed a bridge deal with the Flames three years prior, before Sutter was on the scene, to keep options for his career open — it’s apparent there was some discord between them.

While he didn’t state things directly on an early-season episode of the Spittin Chiclets podcast last fall, Tkachuk alluded to discontentment over Sutter not using him in overtime (in a “perfect Matthew Tkachuk chirp,” according to co-host Ryan Whitney) and verbally danced around the idea of maybe calling the veteran coach to say goodbye following his trade.

It certainly stands as a contrast to both his effusive words for Maurice and Huberdeau’s frank remarks about Sutter.

There’s no doubt Sutter got a lot out of the ’21-22 team. The Jack Adams Award, sterling record for tops in the Pacific Division and playoff berth speak to that, but they were out of the playoffs a year later, so he’s out of a job.

“Darryl is a very sharp man. He’s got a good hockey mind,” Maloney said on Monday. “(But) in today’s world — he’s a hard coach, a firm coach (and) a demanding coach — there’s a shelf life to that type of coach.”

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