Can Tkachuk's Florida Panthers disintegrate the Edmonton Oilers like Oilers did to Tkachuk's Calgary Flames?

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Let us enter the realm of speculation for a moment.

We will never truly know how much the Edmonton Oilers thrashing of the Calgary Flames in the 2022 playoffs led to the complete and rapid disintegration of that powerful and promising Flames team.

It could be mere coincidence. Maybe a number of American-born players like Mathew Tkachuck, Johnny Gaudreau and Noah Hanifin were always doing to find their way to U.S. teams. Maybe that fantastic Flames squad that won 50 games and finished with 111 regular season points in 2021-22 was always going to implode, and it’s mere coincidence that this historic ripping apart of such a fine NHL team happened after they were so thoroughly pounded by the Oilers in 2022, losing to the division final series in five games.

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At the same time, it’s seems possible, even likely, that the devastating loss played some factor and perhaps a major one in the Calgary franchise’s collapse, one that has seen almost every major player on that Calgary team now moved out, including the entire top line of Gaudreau, Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm, who dominated the NHL that season, Gaudreau with 115 points, Tkachuk, 104, and Lindholm, 82.

Also gone are solid  winger Tyler Toffoli, stalwart centre Sean Monahan, top d-men Noah Hanifinm Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, all traded away at this season and various role players including Milan Lucic and Trevor Lewis, with top goalie Jacob Markstrom also nearly moved on a few occasions this year.

It’s jaw-dropping how much has changed in Calgary in two years.

Matthew Tkachuk
Zack Kassian (44) of the Edmonton Oilers pummels Matthew Tkachuk (19) of the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on Jan. 11, 2020 in Calgary. Photo by Derek Leung /Getty Images, file

I’ll argue that in the current salary cap-confined NHL, many team and NHL franchises have make-or-break moments, where the players and management must decide whether to stick with it or go full rebuild. In a league where there’s only two things, winning and misery, the misery of losing helps drive such a decision, with all parties wondering if they can win it all in that city or whether it’s best to blow it all up.

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It’s highly unusual, I’ll suggest, for players who think they’re on the brink of winning a Stanley Cup to throw in the towel on the franchise.

With so many former Calgary players throwing in the towel on the Flames, could it be they didn’t think they were on the brink of winning? Could it be that key players looked at the prospect of facing Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers for years to come in the playoffs, not to mention Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and the Colorado Avalanche, and decided they liked their chances better in some other Eastern city?

Gaudreau refused Calgary, a major blow, then Tkachuk also refused — a much bigger blow — and was moved to Florida.

In the summer of 2023, here’s what Tkachuk — the heart and soul of the 2022 Flames, the pillar of that team — had to say to Sportsnet’s Eric Francis about his decision to leave Calgary for Florida: “The thing I was most attracted to is the competitiveness and how close they’ve been and how good of a team they are and how great they will be in the future — it’s something I really feel I can help with. All the guys are in their mid-to-late 20’s. … The chance to win was the most attractive. … The sun, the beach and all that stuff – don’t get me wrong, that’s really, unbelievably attractive, but the chance to win trumps it all.”

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Sound to me like the lure of winning was a major factor for Tkachuk, which is no surprise.

The NHL window is short for a player. Star players can make as much money in pretty much any city, but they’re only going to win the Cup in a handful of organizations. Tkachuk evidently saw better odds in Florida than in Calgary.

And now he again faces the Edmonton Oilers, this time at a pivotal moment in the history of the Oilers franchise.

Star forward Leon Draisaitl has one more year left on his contract, Connor McDavid two. There’s been much talk that they’ll again sign in Edmonton, but who knows?

As Draisaitl famously said of this season, it’s Cup or bust.

Could busting mean the disintegration of this Oilers squad? That’s a possibility.

I expect the bonds of friendship and the lure of winning will hold together the ride-or-die pair of McDavid and Draisaitl but you never know.

One possibility is that if Tkachuk’s Panthers hammer the Oilers in these finals it will precipitate the breaking up of this Edmonton squad, just as we saw in Calgary after the Oilers hammered the Flames in 2022.

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That’s a hard scenario for Oilers fans to deal with. But we’ve been with it for years now. The prospect of failure meaning the end of the Oilers has been hanging over the team throughout the season and haunting us in these playoffs.

It’s McDavid’s ninth years in Edmonton, Draisaitl’s tenth. It’s time to win, to at least make the Stanley Cup finals. That’s been accomplished but the bar has been set high and it’s still Cup or bust for the Oilers, whatever that means, however that plays out.

If the team had not recovered from its ugly, ugly, ugly start to the year, such a break-up might well now seem inevitable. Why stay if this team can’t win?

But, of course, McDavid and Draisaitl’s Oilers have won much already and can win more. I haven’t yet checked what the odds-makers and NHL experts are predicting but my own sense is that they’ll find a way to again beat Matthew Tkachuk’s team, this time his outstanding and ferocious Florida Panthers.

Tkachuk’s presence on that team pushes this Stanley Cup final into a new realm of intrigue, fascination and dread, given his history with the Oilers and Edmonton fans.

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He is loathed here for his slew foot on Brandon Davidson in 2017 and for his sneaky hits on Zach Kassian. He’s admired for his ferocious play, will to win and notable skill.

But he was also berated for turtling in a fight against Kassian.

Turtlechuck, we called him.

And he was mocked for the way Edmonton’s hard man of hockey Evander Kane went after him in the 2022 playoffs and knocked him off his game.

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Tkachuk is also seen as the one that got away, as the Oilers could have drafted him instead of Jesse Puljujarvi in 2016.

Edmonton’s obsession with Tkachuk is real and immense. If Tkachuk does hope to get some revenge for 2022, it would be helluva time to get it, at this crucial crossroads for the Oilers.

This series is going to be fire.

My predictions: Oilers in six, followed by new mid-term deals for both Draisaitl and McDavid.