After Matthew Tkachuk told the Calgary Flames he would not sign a long-term contract with the club, a trade became inevitable — one that would likely push the Flames into rebuilding mode. No team in NHL history had ever lost two 100-point scorers in the same offseason. This summer, Calgary watched one (Johnny Gaudreau) leave in free agency while another (Tkachuk) essentially forced a trade, leaving the Flames in a highly undesirable spot with minimal leverage.
A legitimate contender mere months ago, they appeared to be headed for an implosion.
But in a stunning move on Friday, Calgary dealt Tkachuk and a conditional fourth-round draft pick to the Florida Panthers for Jonathan Huberdeau, Mackenzie Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt and a first-round pick. Simply put: It’s one of the rarest and most interesting trades in recent NHL history.
Not only is it a blockbuster deal involving two legitimate star players coming off the best season of their respective careers (Tkachuk and Huberdeau were both 100-point scorers in 2021-22), but it also was struck by two division winners who had over 110 points in the standings last season. It’s also the second time in NHL history that two 100-point players have been involved in the same trade. The first involved Wayne Gretzky.
And the most rare aspect of all? For as utterly shocking and unforeseen as the deal was, it’s pretty easy to consider it a win-win for both sides, at least at this juncture.
Let’s dive into why the trade works for both teams and where they could potentially be burned.
Why it works for the Flames
Calgary’s hand was forced. Tkachuk, a restricted free agent, didn’t want to stay, and everybody knew it, limiting the Flames’ leverage in the situation. As much as it sucks to have to trade your 24-year-old star just as he’s heading into the prime of his career, it was the corner they were painted into. Usually when teams are in this spot, they just have to swallow a bitter pill and get as much as they can in a deal that they’re destined to lose.
Not only can you make the case that Calgary got very good value for Tkachuk, but there’s also a pretty good case to be made that the Flames are immediately a better team. They got a similar echelon player (Huberdeau) in return for Tkachuk along with a very good player (Weegar) at a position of need — plus a mid-level prospect AND a first-round pick.
In an offseason where it looked like Calgary was doomed to lose its two best players and swiftly enter a rebuilding period, it’s now well-positioned to defend the Pacific Division title. The Flames can pick up where they left off while not being locked into either player long-term, as both Huberdeau and Weegar are entering the final years of their contracts. Of course, that can be viewed as a negative (we’ll get to that soon), but it also gives Calgary a pretty good parachute if things don’t pan out for some reason this season.
And if you can’t or don’t want to re-sign Huberdeau and/or Weegar, the players can be flipped in midseason for a potential king’s ransom. They would be the kind of rentals that contending teams go bananas over. But for the time being, let’s assume the Flames at least want to keep Huberdeau around for the long term. And why wouldn’t they? He’s coming off a season in which he scored 30 goals and also led the NHL in assists (85 in 80 games), landing him in the top five in Hart Trophy voting.
So, if Calgary plays its cards right, there are a couple of fantastic outcomes here.
The Flames managed to trade Tkachuk for a similar caliber player and give themselves months of exclusive negotiating rights. If Huberdeau signs, they have a very palatable return for a guy who already had one foot out the door. If Huberdeau and/or Weegar are not long for Calgary, they can be dealt for a strong package of future pieces that helps restructure the organization a bit.
On top of the first-rounder they’ve already acquired, the Flames could (conservatively) pick up another two or three at the trade deadline if they’re sellers. Three or four first-round picks as a result of a forced Tkachuk trade? Also pretty palatable.
There’s seemingly only one outcome that would make this a big miss for Calgary, so let’s get into that.
Why it’s a gamble for the Flames
It’s a win if Calgary extends or flips Huberdeau and Weegar, but the risk factor comes into play this season if the Flames are well-positioned in the standings and haven’t reached extensions with the player(s) by the trade deadline.
Given the roster and that division, it’s very plausible (likely, even) that Calgary will be holding a playoff spot by midseason. If Huberdeau and Weegar are still pending unrestricted free agents, will the Flames be willing to ship them out and let their playoff hopes take a hit for the sake of asset management? That’d be a tough spot to navigate, as you never want to hurt your chances of making a Stanley Cup run. But you also don’t want to risk letting Huberdeau and Weegar walk in the offseason for nothing, especially Huberdeau.
The Tkachuk trade has to pay long-term dividends for Calgary in order for it to be seen as a win. Unless the Flames win the Cup next year, the return from the deal becomes extremely less palatable if it ends up being one year of Huberdeau and Weegar, a prospect and a (presumably) late first-rounder.
Of course, there’s also built-in risk in a possible extension for Huberdeau. I’ve mentioned Huberdeau and Tkachuk being similar caliber players (albeit quite different in style), so I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Huberdeau, 29, is five years older than Tkachuk. If Calgary signs Huberdeau to an eight-year contract, you’re getting his age 30-38 seasons at a cap hit that will likely come in somewhere around the $9 million to $10 million AAV range.
Huberdeau has averaged over a point per game in each of the last four seasons, so if that production is sustainable for the majority of his next contract, then he’ll be worth the investment. But is it fair (or smart) to expect that outcome?
These are the difficult decisions that the Flames must evaluate as they move forward. But, all things considered, it’s a far better position than anyone expected them to be in following a Tkachuk move.
So what about Florida? If this trade has so much home run potential for Calgary, how is it also a win for the Panthers?
Why it works for the Panthers
You can make the case that Florida got the best player in the trade, as Tkachuk is a 24-year-old star who brings a unicorn-like mix of skill, toughness and intangibles. He may be a step down from Huberdeau offensively, but there’s a pretty strong case for him as the better all-around, 200-foot player. And, as the Panthers learned pretty quickly this past postseason, offense isn’t everything.
Florida also immediately reached a long-term deal with Tkachuk following Friday’s trade, giving him an eight-year contract worth $9.5 million annually. The Panthers are getting a very good player in his prime years and now have a bit more cost certainty heading into the future. If you were worried about Huberdeau and/or Weegar walking for nothing after this season, securing eight years of Matthew Tkachuk is a pretty nice way to alleviate those concerns.
And Tkachuk paired with Aleksander Barkov for the next eight years? Yeah, that could be a whole lot of fun, and the edge that Tkachuk brings should help make Florida tougher to play against.
It’s easier to applaud the Flames for their work at this point, but the Panthers could be the ones who look like clear winners a year from now if they’re thriving with Tkachuk while Huberdeau and Weegar are hitting the open market.
Why it’s a gamble for the Panthers
First things first: The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners just traded their leading scorer before he hit the age of 30. Regardless of contract status, there’s inherent risk in that kind of bold move, especially as the team’s Stanley Cup window remains open. You’re messing with your club’s driving force of success. Not only that, you dealt several valuable pieces on top of that leading scorer, including a very good NHL defenseman.
Considering the Panthers’ Achilles heel was what they lacked on defense last season, losing Weegar arguably makes them a significantly worse team. They acquired more security in this deal, but it came at the cost of making themselves worse in the short-term. For a club that spent years as a laughingstock before finally winning its first playoff series in 25 years last season, taking a step backward may be a tough pill to swallow — even if it helps solidify the future a bit.
There’s also some risk in buying so high on Tkachuk. He scored 42 goals and had 104 points in 82 games last season, so if you’re going to trade Huberdeau, then you better be getting back equal production. But is that type of output from Tkachuk going to be sustainable, especially now that he’s not alongside Gaudreau, who helped drive play in Calgary?
There’s reason to believe that Tkachuk will fare just fine next to Barkov, and his numbers will likely be quite good on a Cats team that led the league in scoring by a wide margin in 2021-22. But what if last season was as good as it’s going to get for Tkachuk? He thrived defensively in Darryl Sutter’s system while also shooting 16.6%, so there’s a decent chance we may see a little bit of regression on both ends. If that’s the case, it’ll be fascinating to see where Tkachuk settles in production-wise.
In any case, there’s going to be a ton of pressure on both Tkachuk and Florida this season and moving forward. The Panthers took a big, risky swing in order to secure the player that they believe Tkachuk to be, and he’s going to have to consistently deliver greatness in order to justify the cost of acquisition, both in assets and in dollars.