HARD HITS: Tkachuk blockbuster trade involving Huberdeau a rarity, the uncomfortable direction the NHL is headed


Once the first domino fell when Johnny Gaudreau left Calgary for Columbus by taking less money to uproot his family back to the States, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Matthew Tkachuk would not remain a Calgary Flame.

The former 2016 first round pick selected number six by Calgary became a power forward in his six seasons spent at the Saddledome. A imposing player who combines strong skating with the right amount of snarl in front of the net, the 24-year old Tkachuk informed the Flames that he didn’t plan on signing an extension.

Once that happened, Calgary decided to take him to salary arbitration. It sped up the process of moving him. By making Tkachuk available, they wanted a king’s ransom for the budding star who had a career season. His 42 goals, 62 assists, 104 points and plus-57 rating were gaudy numbers produced while playing on a great scoring line that included Gaudreau (40-75-115) and Elias Lindholm (42-40-82).

After seeing the popular Gaudreau leave for nothing, the Flames couldn’t afford a repeat with Tkachuk. The way sports is going these days, teams are now at the mercy of star athletes. It’s beginning to happen in the NHL.

Pierre-Luc Dubois accepted his qualifier from the Jets for one year, $6 million. Most sources reported that he doesn’t want to re-sign in Winnipeg next year. That means he’ll wind up on his third team soon. It’ll be by trade. If it is indeed Montreal, that’ll be another win for a player.

So much for loyalty. There isn’t much now. Unless it’s a Mika Zibanejad signing an extension last year before the start of ’21-22 which turned out great for the Rangers, you don’t see enough players who want to stay. There are exceptions like the Lightning trio of Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev, who all got extensions to stay put.

If you have a good player who wants to leave, then it puts the organization in a tough spot. The Flames made the right decision in moving on from Tkachuk, who got a brand new eight-year contract worth $9.5 million on average from the Panthers last night. He got paid. Younger brother Brady Tkachuk was pretty excited.

The way the news broke was shocking. I’d just returned to see it revealed by the official Florida Panthers account on Twitter. At first, I thought it couldn’t be real. I had to do a double take.

Vi’s reaction was similar to mine. The Panthers parted with star forward Jonathan Huberdeau and good defenseman MacKenzie Weegar along with prospect Cole Schwindt plus a lottery protected first round pick in 2025. It’s a steep price to pay along with the bag 💰 Tkachuk got to get younger.

I thought Huberdeau deserved to be included for the Hart Trophy. His career season where he had 30 goals with a league-leading 85 assists for 115 points and a plus-35 rating were outstanding. His previous bests came in ’18-19 when he produced 30 goals, 62 assists and 92 points. He also was over a point-per-game in ’19-20 and ’20-21 totaling 43-96-139 over 124 games. On a better team, he put it altogether at age 28.

Prior to ’21-22, Tkachuk had never been a point-per-game player. But he did have 77 points (34-43-77) in 80 games at age 21. That also came during ’18-19. He followed it up by going 39-65-104 over 125 games the next two seasons. Playing for a contract along with Gaudreau, Tkachuk also went off by scoring 40 goals for the first time in his career with 62 assists and 104 points. He definitely benefited from who he played with. But could form a dynamic duo in Florida with Aleksander Barkov.

It’s an interesting trade. A rare blockbuster that involved two 100-point scorers. Something that hasn’t happened in over 30 years. It actually involved John Cullen going to the Whalers in a six player blockbuster deal that sent Ron Francis to the Penguins. The key players were Ulf Samuelsson and Zarley Zalapski. As it turned out, the move helped the Pens win the first of two consecutive Cups. Unfortunately for the Whalers, it didn’t turn out so good. They never recovered.

On the level, the current trade involving Huberdeau and Tkachuk could work out for both teams. However, both the 29-year old Huberdeau and 28-year old Weegar are entering the final seasons of their deals. Huberdeau is a bargain at an AAV of $5.9 million while Weegar is at $3.25 million for ’22-23.

The short-term value of the trade looks better for Calgary. They added a top line scoring playmaker to replace Gaudreau, and got a reliable top four defenseman who can play key minutes. A blue line that also includes Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, Nikita Zadorov, Chris Tanev and key RFA Oliver Kylington should be steady under coach Darryl Sutter.

Huberdeau would pencil in on the top line with Lindholm and possibly Andrew Mangiapane, who wants to stay in Calgary. He’s currently a restricted free agent coming off a career high 35-goal season. He previously made $2.425 million. Expect that to be doubled at around $5 million per year.

That would comprise a good scoring line even with the departures of Johnny Columbus and Tkachuk. The question is secondary help. Aside from Mangiapane rifling in 35 goals, there wasn’t much behind the big line last season. That hurt them in a disappointing second round loss to bitter Alberta rival Edmonton.

If you look at the current Flames roster, they are fine at center. Right behind Lindholm is pesky Mikael Backlund. Then it gets interesting. Is Sean Monahan still part of their plans? His contract that is worth $6.375 million expires next year. It depends on the health. Without him, there’s still Dillon Dube and they signed former Ranger Kevin Rooney. A solid get for the fourth line.

There aren’t many finishers. Tyler Toffoli is a good two-way player who can get 20 to 25 goals in a defined role. Blake Coleman is a 15-20 goal player who kills penalties well and hits. Milan Lucic is playing out the final year of a contract that pays him $6 million. It’s listed as $5.25 million AAV on puckpedia.com. At this point, the proud former Stanley Cup winner is a bit piece who adds grit and physicality.

In the system, the Flames have three young forward prospects with potential. Former first round pick Matt Coronato has good upside after pacing Harvard University in scoring as a freshman with 36 points (18-18-36). No doubt he won’t be rushed. But another strong year and maybe he is signed.

Jakob Pelletier was a good player for Team Canada at the U20 World Junior Championships in 2021. The former ’19 first round pick posted three goals and four assists for seven points. He was almost a point-per-game in his first pro year for Stockton of the AHL where he tallied 62 points (27-35-62) in 66 games. Pelletier might be ready.

The third prospect is another former first rounder Connor Zary. The 20-year old needs more time in the AHL to grow. He was selected 24th in 2020. Zary had two assists for Canada at the ’21 WJC.

While the Panthers have Tkachuk locked up for the foreseeable future, Calgary will have most of the upcoming ’22-23 season to figure out what to do with Huberdeau and Weegar. Depending on how it goes, that could determine the path they take. They still boast an elite goalie in Jacob Markstrom, who was the runner-up to Igor Shestyorkin for the Vezina. Plus a solid D.

Huberdeau can decide his future. Does he want to stay in Calgary on the one big payday he’ll get? Flames legend Theo Fleury gave his view on what it was like playing for the franchise. Then added a key point.

Of course, there are other factors involved now including the very strict Covid policy that’s been enforced in Canada. It isn’t exactly fun for players and citizens. Fleury has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. That’s my only comment in regards to the polarizing issue of politics.

There’s also income taxes to consider. For Tkachuk, he went to Florida. That means he gets tax breaks on his spanking new $76 million contract over the next eight years. That helps. It has allowed some teams to acquire and keep players they otherwise might not be able to. See Tampa. Although they did have to cut costs by dealing Ryan McDonagh over to Nashville to create room. They also lost Ondrej Palat to the Devils.

In theory, Fleury is right. Most of the time, it’s about the money. Even with the Flames offering Gaudreau a reported $10 million, it wasn’t enough to convince him to stay. He wanted to move his family closer to home. Although he didn’t choose New Jersey, going to Columbus affords him the opportunity with his wife who’s pregnant with their first baby, the chance to have a nice family life closer to home. Something that he said was important in his decision.

When it comes to unrestricted free agents, there’s nothing wrong with them choosing to go to another city. That’s their decision to make along with the family. You can’t fault a player for that. It’s been that way for a long time.

In a salary cap system, a select number of teams can bid on players. It all depends on their salary structure. The Flyers never even were able to offer Gaudreau a contract due to the way they’ve been run by GM Chuck Fletcher. It would’ve required multiple salary dumps.

Ditto for the Islanders, who remain the only team not to sign a single free agent since July 13th. That’s Lou Lamoriello for you. Over-committed to veteran forwards who are on the downside of their careers except Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson and Oliver Wahlstrom.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Flames flip Huberdeau at next year’s trade deadline for younger assets. I also wouldn’t be shocked if the Rangers are involved. That largely depends on Kaapo Kakko, Vitaly Kravtsov and possibly Brennan Othmann. We know Team President and GM Chris Drury isn’t shy about working the phones if he sees a chance to upgrade the roster.

On the flip side, the Panthers get a younger player on the rise. Tkachuk brings that unique combination of skill, speed and grit to a team that got exposed by the Lightning in a very disappointing second round sweep to their bitter interstate rivals.

Did GM Bill Zito overpay? It sure looks that way. But he knew he was going to potentially lose both Huberdeau and Weegar with the latter having been linked to Ottawa. So, he went all in on a player whose best years should be ahead.

While they did pay a premium for Tkachuk, the Cats kept the key young core pieces. That includes promising center Anton Lundell, Gregori Denisenko, Mackie Samoskevich and Michael Benning. That’s positive because they don’t have a first round pick in the NHL Draft until 2026.

A very high scoring team, the Panthers should still be able to fill it up. Led by Barkov and Tkachuk, they boast plenty of scoring depth. That includes Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Lundell, Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour. They subtracted Huberdeau, Weegar and lost Mason Marchment to Dallas.

The loss of Weegar is interesting. He provided a good skating right defenseman who could contribute. They are counting on Ekblad to stay healthy. Radko Gudas remains the physical force on the blue line. After that, it becomes iffy. They added proven vet Marc Staal to play third pair with Lucas Carlsson. How will that go?

With Sergei Bobrovsky the starter in net with Spencer Knight his understudy, goaltending shouldn’t be an issue. But if they don’t improve their defensive structure under new coach Paul Maurice, they’ll again be asked to do too much. They brought in the experienced Maurice with that in mind. It’ll be interesting to see how their system changes compared to Andrew Brunette, who is now the top assistant with the Devils.

On paper, it looks like the Panthers weakened themselves for ’22-23. However, they also invited Eric Staal on a pro tryout. If he makes the roster, he can play a secondary role similar to Joe Thornton. Jumbo Joe hasn’t decided on his future. Florida also added Colin White and Nick Cousins for depth on the cheap.

Currently, they’re over the projected salary cap at $86,533,334. That’s over $4,000 they must subtract to be cap compliant. They might not have Duclair right away. He had surgery to repair a torn Achilles last month. If he’s on LTIR, that’s $3 million that is freed up to start the season.

In a division that still boasts the powerhouse Lightning, always entertaining Maple Leafs, the ultra competitive Bruins and improved Senators, the competition should be stiff. Also expect the Red Wings to be a little better. The Sabres will compete, but remain destined for the Connor Bedard Sweepstakes. The Canadiens can’t be any worse than last year under Marty St. Louis. However, they also should be in the Bedard Lottery.

So, how should we judge the Tkachuk for Huberdeau/Weegar deal that includes a protected first? It could look very different by March 2023 and beyond.

In terms of where the league is headed, it’s not a good thing. When you have players beginning to dictate the terms, that means the NHL could start to look similar to the other major sports. While it thankfully should never become as bad as the NBA that’s full of egotistical, self-serving superstars who force trades and opt out of huge contracts, hopefully we won’t see hockey players only choosing certain markets to play in. Something that’s unhealthy for a league and commissioner who emphasizes competitive balance.

In news that got overlooked due to the huge blockbuster trade between the Flames and Panthers on Friday, the Blue Jackets re-signed RFA Patrik Laine to a four-year deal worth $34.8 million. That’s $8.7 million AAV that’ll take him through 2026. So, he stays put to form a potential great scoring combo with Gaudreau.

With Laine signed, the Blue Jackets gave away right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand to the Seattle Kraken in exchange for third and fourth round picks in 2023. A fan favorite who was a good player for Columbus, he had 28 goals and 29 assists for 57 points in 80 contests last season.

The 27-year old Bjorkstrand has four years left on a contract that averages $5.4 million per season on the cap. Credit Seattle for taking advantage of the situation in Columbus to add a quality top six forward to a roster that will now include free agent addition Andre Burakovsky along with young centers Matty Beniers and Shane Wright.

With vets Jordan Eberle, Jaden Schwartz, Brandon Tanev, Yanni Gourde and Jared McCann, they should be able to score more goals next season. The real excitement surrounds a full year of Beniers with Wright having fallen to number four. You know he’ll want to prove the Canadiens wrong for passing on him at number one.

As far as big free agent Nazem Kadri, it’s all quiet for now. Maybe he’s hoping the Avalanche can free up space to re-sign him. Would he take a discount to stay? He sure silenced the critics in Toronto. It seems almost impossible for him to remain in Colorado. We’ll see what happens.

The Bruins are of course in wait and see mode with Patrice Bergeron. You know if he returns, it’ll be in black and gold. The only team he’s ever played for. A future Hall Of Famer, arguably the greatest two-way center ever is also probably waiting for Boston to make room for him. It would be only fitting for the classy Bergeron to finish his brilliant career in Beantown. Pick 45 of a memorable 2003 Draft is the best of that class.

David Quinn was officially hired as the new coach of the San Jose Sharks. The former Rangers bench boss who helped develop some of the players Gerard Gallant guided to the Conference Finals, gets another chance with the teal. You’ll have Quinn teaming with new GM Mike Grier. Both formerly with the Rangers. A good franchise that’s been very successful over 30 years with 21 playoff appearances, five Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final reached, they are in decline. It’ll be interesting to follow how Grier and Quinn fare. Best of luck to both.

Finally, with even more rumors circulating about Team Canada at the World Juniors dating back to 2003, why is it that nobody can remember anything about the serious allegations surrounding former players? Sexual assault is very serious. That there is growing evidence from well respected reporter Rick Westhead on both the ’03 and ’18 WJC teams is very mind-numbing.

If it’s proven true, shouldn’t Hockey Canada be disciplined? There’s the rescheduled 2022 WJC coming up in August. Nothing against the players who could participate. But why should Russia only face punishment while Canada doesn’t?

There’s a big difference too. You can’t compare the actions of a deranged lunatic by punishing kids and then turn the other way when there are serious issues where players were involved in improper behavior with females. There should be accountability.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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1 Response to HARD HITS: Tkachuk blockbuster trade involving Huberdeau a rarity, the uncomfortable direction the NHL is headed

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