Matthew Tkachuk has been utterly dominant in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, carrying the eight-seed Florida Panthers past the top teams in the Eastern Conference: the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Carolina Hurricanes.
The gritty winger has 21 points through 16 games. In the Panthers’ sweep of the Hurricanes, Tkachuk scored the game-winning goal in three of the four games, all of which were decided by just one goal.
Vancouver Canucks fans can only look back to the 2016 NHL Entry Draft when the Canucks took Olli Juolevi fifth overall, one pick ahead of Tkachuk. As they watch Tkachuk dominate Canucks fans are likely thinking, “That could have been us.”
In another sense, however, Canucks fans should really be hoping that Tkachuk’s current situation isn’t “us.”
Tkachuk notably isn’t heading to the Stanley Cup Final with the team that drafted him, the Calgary Flames. He was traded to the Panthers a year ago in a blockbuster deal after he made it clear he wouldn’t sign a long-term contract with the Flames. Tkachuk was in a position to demand a trade because he had signed a three-year bridge deal after coming off his entry-level contract and was just one year away from unrestricted free agency.
It’s the exact same position Elias Pettersson could find himself in a year from now.
Just like Tkachuk, Pettersson signed a three-year bridge deal after his entry-level contract expired. That deal expires after next season, leaving Pettersson one year away from unrestricted free agency. If Pettersson isn’t satisfied with the Canucks’ direction at that point, he could easily demand a trade, with the leverage of being able to take the Canucks’ required one-year qualifying offer and head straight to free agency the following year.
This all could have been avoided by signing Pettersson to a long-term deal back in 2021 but the Canucks’ salary cap situation at the time meant they could only sign one of Pettersson or Quinn Hughes to a long-term deal. The Canucks chose Hughes.
But it also seemed like Pettersson wanted the flexibility of a short-term bridge deal at the time. In an interview with Swedish reporter Uffe Bodin in 2021, Pettersson made it clear what was most important to him: winning.
“I want to stay there [Vancouver] now, but I also want to play for a team that’s winning and has the chance to go far into the playoffs every year,” said Pettersson in Bodin’s translation. “I feel like we’ve got a chance to do that next year. If we have that chance when my next deal expires...I don’t know. I just wanna play where there’s a chance of winning.”
It’s the same sentiment expressed by Tkachuk when he explained why he wanted to be traded to the Panthers.
“The chance to win was the most attractive,” said Tkachuk. “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.”
Starting July 1, the Canucks can sign Pettersson to a new contract but will he want to before the team proves they have a chance to go deep into the playoffs? In each of the last two seasons since Pettersson signed his bridge deal, the Canucks have missed the playoffs by a wide margin. While the team has made significant changes in that time — a new management team and two new head coaches — have they done enough to convince their franchise forward they’re on the right path?
Or, in two years time, will Canucks fans be watching Pettersson carry another team to the Stanley Cup Final?