It’s 80 degrees and sunny outside FLA Live Arena. But inside, on the ice—where winger Matthew Tkachuk and center Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov are practicing with the rest of their Panthers teammates—it’s a downright frigid 25 degrees. They don’t seem to feel it under their pads, jerseys, helmets, and skates. Watching them run through drills, it’s hard to comprehend how guys so built, wearing such bulky gear, balanced on nearly razor-thin blades of metal are as graceful and nuanced as they are powerful and aggressive.
It can be tricky to tell the players apart in their unmarked practice jerseys (if you squint hard enough you can spot their numbers on the backs of their helmets), but after watching the action with your face pressed against the plexiglass barrier, you start to see the differences. Barkov is all about finesse. He’s what’s known as a “two-way player,” who can rock both the defensive and offensive sides of the game. “I’m always trying to be relied on in any situation we come across,” Barkov says. Tkachuk, on the other hand, is a passion player. “I play a very offensive-minded game,” he says. “I love having a puck. I love making plays. I’m around the net and I can score those gritty types of goals.”
This dynamic duo represents the Panthers’ two biggest superstars on a team that’s a veritable constellation unto itself—and that’s just what the team’s new head coach, Paul Maurice, was looking for in 2022.
Having recently stepped down from a nine-season coaching gig with the Winnipeg Jets, Maurice was taking a break on his sofa and watching some games on television. “At heart, I’m a hockey fan,” he says. “I was no longer confined to watching my next opponent, so for the first time in a long time, I got to watch the teams that I thought were fun to watch.”
Maurice says he kept pausing his channel surfing whenever he spotted the Panthers on-screen. “There was lots of speed, lots of skill, lots of great personalities on the team,” he recalls. “It was just exciting as hell.”
When Maurice’s youngest son was accepted into law school at the University of Miami (a mere 40-or-so miles away from the rink in Sunrise), it seemed like a sign. And when Bill Zito, the Panthers’ general manager, invited Maurice to interview for the team’s head coaching position, the universe turned up the heat—literally—under the South Florida sun. “I wasn’t necessarily coming down to get the job,” he admits. “But a couple of hours into the first interview, I found myself thinking, ‘I want to work here. I want to work for this guy. I want to work for this group.’” Maurice accepted Zito’s job offer and was announced as the Panthers’ head coach in June 2022.
For Tkachuk, moving from the Calgary Flames (where he was drafted in 2016) to the Florida Panthers in July of last year wasn’t that same type of kismet; instead, it was purpose-driven. “This team is so competitive and has been for the last few years,” he says. “I just wanted to be a part of that kind of winning team.”
And off the ice? “It’s pretty easy to tell that this is the greatest place to live and to play hockey,” Tkachuk says. “I bought a place in Fort Lauderdale on the water, like a day after I got traded.” (He has yet to purchase what seems to be the de facto status symbol for pro athletes—a high-end sports car—but he has acquired a pair of Jet Skis and what he calls “a mack daddy golf cart.”)
His burgeoning collection of South Florida–approved toys isn’t the only thing that bodes well for Tkachuk sticking around: His eight-year, $76-million contract with the Panthers means he’s here for the long haul. “I just really want to be in a place that has the best chance to win,” he says. “And for me, that’s this place.”
“There just aren’t men like [Tkachuk] left in the NHL,” Maurice says. “His skills are incredible, but he also plays with this edge, this kind of raw energy—with a passion and a sort of fire. A combination of those two things—grit and skill—you just don’t see that very much anymore. We’re lucky to have him here.”
Tkachuk says that from the coaches to the trainers to the support staff and beyond, playing for the Panthers is like being a part of a big hockey family. It’s a familiar feeling: His own family tree is blooming with hockey talent, including his dad (NHL Hall-of-Famer Keith
Tkachuk), his kid brother (Brady Tkachuk, who plays for the Ottawa Senators), and a handful of cousins and second cousins who have played or coached the sport professionally. Even his sister takes part, albeit via field hockey. (“Close enough, right?” Tkachuk jokes.)
“It was a hockey household,” he recalls. “I grew up around the game, going to the rink with my dad whenever I could. I knew at a really early age it was something I wanted to be a part of for my whole life.”
That family connection forged an early bond between Tkachuk and Barkov, himself a product of a hockey household; his father played professional hockey in Russia, Italy, and Finland. “My childhood was full of hockey, like Matthew’s” Barkov says.
Unlike Maurice and Tkachuk who joined the team this past summer, Barkov has been a Panther for nearly a decade now, having been selected as a 2013 first-round draft pick. He was named team captain in 2018—an honor that “is pretty much everything to me,” he says. In June 2021, he won the coveted Selke Trophy, which is presented to hockey’s best two-way player. In October 2021, the Panthers made sure Barkov remains roster-ready for the foreseeable future with an eight-year, $80-million contract extension.
Despite the accolades, Maurice says Barkov remains incredibly humble. “There’s a term that some athletes ‘big league’ the game, meaning they see themselves as bigger than the game,” he explains. “But [Barkov] doesn’t think he’s bigger than anybody in any room. If you’ve got kids who are asking you to buy them a Panthers jersey, you’d be proud to have them wear one with the name Barkov on the back.”
And in terms of skills, Barkov has them in spades. “There isn’t anything on the ice that he won’t do or that he thinks he’s above,” Maurice says. “He’s going to block shots. He’s going to be the hardest working guy in practice. He’s going to be one of the most fit guys when it comes to camp. He doesn’t cheat the game. He doesn’t cheat his teammates or linemates.”
Speaking of linemates, Barkov and Tkachuk didn’t start out the season skating on the same line (that’s a hockey term for a group of forwards who play together during a game). “When you put your two stars on different lines, it forces the other team to spread their resources out,” Maurice says of his initial decision to play the duo separately.
But as the season progressed, plans changed. Barkov and Tkachuk took the ice together with teammate Carter Verhaeghe against the Ottawa Senators in October. “It was dynamic,” Maurice recalls. “They had something like 35 shot attacks. That’s what some teams get in a night.”
As for whether the Barkov-Tkachuk line will hold throughout the season? Maurice exhorts fans to wait and see. “I might look at splitting them up on the road,” he says. “But at home, it can be a real advantage.”
But will it be enough of an advantage to win the ultimate hockey prize, Lord Stanley’s famous silver cup?
It seemed within reach last year: The Panthers won the 2022 Atlantic Division Championship and the Presidents’ Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL’s best regular season team. They were part of the postseason, too, winning their first playoff series since 1996, defeating the Washington Capitals in six games during the opening round. But the second round came with a sting, when they were swept out of the semifinals by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Barkov doesn’t focus on last year’s negatives. “It was a good start,” he says. “But that was just the beginning.”
So what’s it going to take this year, given Barkov’s returning talents and Tkachuk’s new weaponry?
Maurice says the old adage of “taking one game at a time” is a fine strategy—with a caveat. “Each game, you have to learn something to take into the next game. And when you get to the playoffs, you have built a cemented belief in who you are as a team and the way you’re going to play. That’s what the regular season is for. By the time we hit the playoffs, we all understand exactly the style of game that we want to play—and we’re playing it to the best of our abilities.”
Even with his superstar status, Tkachuk knows that nothing is a given. “It’s hard to make the playoffs in this sport,” he admits. “Half the teams do, and half the teams don’t. We’re trying to be in the half that does. Once we get there, we’ll see what happens.”
Barkov agrees. “We’re not thinking too much ahead. But at the same time, we’re building our game and identity toward that big goal.”
To Maurice’s way of thinking, Barkov is just the guy to lead the Panthers to that goal. “He simply wants to win hockey games,” Maurice says. “He’s one of those guys who might be more than happy if everybody else on the team got a point. He’ll just be happy that we win and that he feels he did the right thing on the ice. He’s the kind of guy who’s always looking to fill everyone’s cups.”