SUNRISE, Fla. — The easiest thing for the Florida Panthers this summer would have been to maintain the status quo, especially after posting the NHL’s best record.
The Panthers went a different way.
Matthew Tkachuk was introduced as the team’s newest addition, three days after the Panthers and Calgary completed a trade that sent Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt and a conditional first-round draft pick to the Flames.
It was the latest big move for Florida, which earlier this summer hired Paul Maurice to take over for Andrew Brunette – a coach of the year finalist as an interim for the Panthers this past season – and now parts ways with both the franchise’s all-time leading scorer in Huberdeau and a defenseman in Weegar who led the team in skater minutes over the past two seasons.
“The changes we’ve made were made with the team and organization’s best interest at heart,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said. “And all for different reasons in each instance. In each instance, to be honest, we’ve acquired somebody who’s extraordinary.”
The Panthers believe extraordinary is the right word for Tkachuk, a 24-year-old coming off his first 100-point season. The organization will never speak in anything but superlatives with regard to Huberdeau – Zito made sure to laud both him and Weegar in his opening remarks Monday – but Tkachuk brings a different style, one that Florida thinks it may have been lacking.
“I bring a certain swagger,” Tkachuk said.
He had Florida at the top of his list of preferred destinations when deciding that he wouldn’t sign a long-term extension with Calgary. The Panthers were a top pick for many reasons: young core, the chance to play alongside Florida captain Aleksander Barkov (“top-two player in the NHL, and that’s a fact,” Tkachuk said), and even the chance to wear flip-flops to work most days.
Barkov is under contract for eight years. So is Tkachuk.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that obviously some of the attributes that Matthew brings are areas of the game that we could really use collectively in our group,” Zito said. “So, when that materialized as a reality, then rather quickly, we had to decide that this was something to pursue.”
Tkachuk had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points for Calgary. Huberdeau tied a career best with 30 goals for Florida, plus set marks with 85 assists and 115 points – both of those being franchise records for the Panthers.
The trade was agreed to Friday afternoon in principle and was completed late Friday night, leading to some surprise phone calls.
“It was a big shock for me,” Huberdeau said Monday when he and Weegar were introduced by the Flames. “It’s part of life. Now we have to go forward.”
Weegar had similar emotions: “I get the part of the hockey business and that side of it.”
Zito said the Panthers clearly understood that they had to give something – a lot, in this case – to get something. Tkachuk is five years younger than Huberdeau, which made some sense from planning out where the franchise will be years down the line.
And he immediately began making fans in Florida. With Calgary, Tkachuk embraced an all-Alberta rivalry with Edmonton. Now with the Panthers, he becomes rivals with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that swept Florida from the second round.
“I hate Edmonton,” Tkachuk said. “But I hate Tampa more now.”