Flame Out

American Stars Johnny Gaudreau And Matthew Tkachuk Make Waves This Offseason By Joining New Teams

 

Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk tore up the National Hockey League last season, combining for 82 goals while skating on the Calgary Flames’ top line. 

Gaudreau finished tied for second in the league with 115 points, and Tkachuk was eighth best with 104, career highs for both.

This season, though, the two young American superstars are hoping to shake up the NHL, only in a different way and in different places far, far from Calgary.

In July, Gaudreau, an unrestricted free agent, signed seven-year, $68.25 million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets that will pay him $9.75 million per season. 

Tkachuk, with a year remaining on his contract with the Flames, was traded to the Florida Panthers in a blockbuster deal that sent Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary. With Panthers, Tkachuk signed for $9.5 million for eight years, a deal worth $76 million.

One was the biggest free-agent signing of the offseason, the other a centerpiece of the biggest trade.

Gaudreau, 29, a slick playmaker, adds offensive touch to a team that finished just three points out of a playoff spot last year. And while no line combinations have been set, he might just fill a role the Blue Jackets need to get to the next level – as a set-up man for their highly touted, right-shot sniper, Patrick Laine.

“I think there’s a lot of potential. I think we can have a lot of success here,” Gaudreau said. “It’s hard to make the playoffs in this league, but I think we have a really good group here. So I’m excited.”

For the Panthers, Tkachuk joins a team that finished the last year’s regular season with the most points, but disappointed in the playoffs, getting swept in the second round by their in-state rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

The son of Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk, Matthew is one of the best American forwards ever, and brother of Senators captain Brady, brings a unique combination of skill, scoring punch, physicality, and grit, and it’s the final two that has been sorely lacking in the Panthers’ line up.

“He’s a 24-year old, 100-point guy, tough, mean,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said at a news conference. “The attributes Matthew has are areas of the game we could really use.”

Tkachuk is excited to join a team that’s already loaded with Alexander Barkov up front, Aaron Ekblad on the blue line and a pair of aces in goal in Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight.

“The thing I’m most excited about is the way their team set up now,” Tkachuk said. “They had one of the best teams in the league this past season. It seems like a perfect fit for me to come in to this young core and be on a team that contends into the future.”

The sun and beaches of South Florida don’t hurt, either. 

Gaudreau and Tkachuk were part of a banner season for American players in the NHL last year. Eight Yanks scored 40 or more goals. 

That’s not only the most ever for USA players, but it was more than all other countries combined – there were only seven other players to make the 40-goal threshold. And the league’s top goal-scorer was Auston Matthews, who had 60. The other Americans in the 40-plus club were Chris Kreider, Kyle Connor, Jason Robertson, Alex DeBrincat, and Jake Guentzel.

“It’s awesome,” Gaudreau said. “To see American kids in the top five in the draft or come out of college and make an impact in a year or two is just great to see. Hopefully, for me, I can keep producing so these young guys don’t push me out of the league.”

Gaudreau and Tkachuk are almost opposites as hockey players. Johnny Hockey is one of the smallest players in the league, at 5 foot 7 and 160 pounds, but is a highly elusive skater and a magician with the puck. Tkachuk stands 6 foot 2 and tips the scales at 200 pounds, and relishes battling in the corners and dirty areas of the ice. 

But both of them are rink rats at heart. Gaudreau grew up in Carneys Pont, N.J., where he father built an ice rink and put Johnny on the ice before he was out of diapers. To encourage the youngster, his father would toss Skittles around the rink and Johnny scurried after them on skates. 

Tkachuk and brother Brady grew up scurrying around NHL locker rooms and jumping on the ice after their father’s practices in his playing days with the St. Louis Blues and Arizona Coyotes. Their mother Chantal has a whole photo album of shots of the two grinning boys with Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane – guys they now bang into the boards. 

After their early starts on the ice, Gaudreau and Tkachuk took different paths to the NHL. 

Gaudreau had to find ways to prove a little guy can play. Once, while weighing in for NHL scouts while in the USHL, he stuffed five pucks in his pants too add a few pounds to his 130-pound frame. He was drafted by the Flames in the fourth round, 104th overall, in the 2011 draft, and went off to Boston College, where he quickly showed Calgary got a steal. He scored 36 goals and 44 assists in 40 games in his junior year, won the Hobey Baker Award as the top college player, and made the jump to the pros. 

Tkachuk, on the other hand, was long tabbed as a likely hot prospect, spent two seasons with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, and then played a season with the London Knights of the OHL, scoring 105 points in 57 games. The Flames took him with the sixth pick in 2016.

Both Gaudreau and Tkachuk up impressive numbers but since they were both left-shots they never played on the same line. When the coaching staff gave it a try at the beginning of the season, these two Flames immediately caught fire.

“I think we’re both very smart players,” Tkachuk said. “We clicked and had a lot of chemistry out there.”

In making their offseason moves, both players did it with family in mind. Gaudreau wanted to be closer to his family on the east coast, and liked the idea of short flights and road trips, especially since his wife Meredith is expecting their first child. 

Tkachuk’s family is located St. Louis and another cluster of relatives are in Boston. Their outings to Matt vs Brady matchups are well documented. The first time they played against each other, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins of various ranks – 38 in all – took over a whole section of seat and wore specially made split jerseys, with Senators colors on one sleeve and Flames colors on the other. 

For Tkachuk, the calendar is already marked with the dates when Florida plays Ottawa. Both Gaudreau and Tkachuk are looking forward to games against their former team, too. But one other date to keep an eye on is Nov. 20 when Florida visits Columbus. It will be the first time these guys, teammates for the last six seasons, have ever played against each other.

“We’re close off the ice,” Gaudreau said. “We had dinner together when we were on the road. We would watch World Juniors together and cheer against the Canadians. So it’s going to be strange.”

Tkachuk said he’s looking forward to the challenge. 

“Johnny’s one of the best players out there,” he said. “It will be easier said than done to contain him, that’s for sure.”

And may the best man win.

 

Neal E. Boudette is a freelance writer based in South Lyon, Mich.
Issue: 
2022-10

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What's Your Favorite Thing About The Hockey Season?
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Total votes: 613