Matthew Tkachuk's numbers are down from last year. The Panthers insist his value has gone up

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Matthew Tkachuk’s basic offensive numbers for the Florida Panthers are all down this season. Goals, down. Assists, down. Points, down. Shooting percentage, down.

On paper, that doesn’t look great. On ice, Florida sees things very differently.

“You just have to look at some different numbers,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

The one in particular that Maurice points to: 92 standings points for Florida last season, 110 standings points for Florida this season. Both seasons ended up in the same place — the Stanley Cup Final — but there is no question that this Panthers team was better over 82 regular-season games than last season’s club was.

And in a room filled with leaders, Tkachuk most definitely stands out. He helped the Panthers be considerably better from start to finish, and at both ends of the ice, which is why Maurice is raving about his year — not obsessing over less scoring as Game 1 looms Saturday night against Edmonton.

“He’s a leader in there, so the culture and the shape of our team, he has a major impact on that,” Maurice said. “The biggest growth, by far ... is the discipline in his game. He’s just not in the penalty box anymore. I would say straight through November into January last year, he was. He was the Tasmanian devil out there.”

Including the playoffs, Tkachuk finished his first Florida season with 133 points and 197 penalty minutes and was the second player in NHL history to have that many points and PIMs in the same season; Kevin Stevens had 151 points and 282 penalty minutes for Pittsburgh in 1991-92.

This year, Tkachuk's numbers so far: 107 points, 107 PIMs. No other player in the league has 100 of both, so he still stands alone on that front but he's clearly been more disciplined or at least more choosy about when it's time to visit the box. Case in point: when he and Boston's David Pastrnak decided to fight in Game 2 of that series, a rare display of big-time stars throwing punches at one another.

“Two guys wanted to go at it and I think our guy kind of came out on top of that one," Maurice said. "So, I thought it was good and I didn’t think about it again.”

There is a clear evolution to Tkachuk, on and off the ice. He's only 26 but is wrapping up his eighth year in the NHL. He got engaged a couple months ago. He's in the title series for the second straight year; Florida got rolled by Vegas last year in part because several key players, Tkachuk included, were dealing with serious injuries.

He played some of that series through a fractured sternum, an issue that was so painful teammates had to help him put his pads on, get his jersey over his head and tie his skates. Tkachuk couldn’t play in Game 5, when Vegas clinched the series in a rout.

“Obviously, getting hurt in Game 3 was not the way to draw it up," Tkachuk said. "Felt like, maybe if I’m healthier, it could have maybe changed it a little bit, that series. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t control anything of what happened. I just had to go into the summer with that kind of hanging over my head a little bit.

“I basically had to work ... as hard as I can to get back healthy, to get back to feeling good and ultimately work as hard as I can to give myself another crack at it,” Tkachuk said. "And here we are, having another chance at it.”

That chance starts on Saturday, on home ice against the Oilers.

And that adds another layer of intrigue to all things surrounding Tkachuk in this series — since he spent his first six NHL years in Calgary, a rival of Edmonton. They are not fans of his in Edmonton, to put it mildly. It is a mutual feeling. A respect exists between the sides, at least from Tkachuk's perspective. But a warm ovation does not await him in Games 3 and 4 when this series shifts to Alberta.

“Obviously, this is way bigger than that," Tkachuk said. “But I'm very comfortable playing in these games against them. It's been a big rivalry ever since I was 18 years old. I know the passion and I just know that rink, I know that city, been there, played a lot of games there. I should feel very comfortable going back. They're not big fans of me. I'll try to take advantage of that.”


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