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The Panthers and Flames Just Redefined the "Hockey Trade"

The Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames pulled off the biggest deal of the salary cap era, and re-defined what a "hockey trade" is in the process.
Matthew Tkachuk

At approximately 11:45 PM EST on Friday night, the concept of leverage in professional hockey passed away peacefully surrounded by friends and family. 

What a tragedy. Gone far too soon. 

With his back against the wall and his organization in disarray, Flames GM Brad Treliving somehow managed to pull off a miracle as the clock ticked closer to midnight, turning an MVP candidate that had publicly stated his desire to leave Calgary as soon as humanly possible into another MVP candidate, a legitimate top-pair defender, a decent prospect, and a first-round pick. 

Pour one out for Leverage, folks. It will be missed. 

It's not hyperbole to label the trade that sent Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jonathan Huberdeau, Mackenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt, and a 2025 first as the biggest deal of the salary cap era. 

We're talking about two elite-level forwards coming off respective 100-point seasons in the midst of their primes getting swapped out for each other, with a player of Weegar's caliber just cavalierly included as a throw-in. 

These trades simply don't happen in the all-too-conservative NHL. Not in a flat-cap era, at least. It was barely 24 hours ago, in fact, that Bally Sports' Andy Strickland mused on Twitter about how an NHL GM relayed to him just how impossible it was to move salary at this point in the offseason. 

And then: BAM! 

A blockbuster for the ages. 

Even if you take the financials, cap ramifications, and hurt feelings out of the equation, it's still difficult to remember a trade addressing the needs of both parties so perfectly. 

In Tkachuk, the Panthers get their guy -- a legitimate superstar boasting the exact combination of skill, physicality, determination, and pestilence that GMs spend their entire tenures looking for. Players like that don't typically become available ever, and especially not three months before their 25th birthday. 

These are unique circumstances, And the Panthers (pun intended) pounced. That's exactly what a contender should do. 

Not to mention, after mortgaging their draft and prospect capital only to get swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the playoffs last season, the Panthers clearly felt the need to re-evaluate the pillars upon which their roster was built. 

Tkachuk gives this team an entirely new element -- one that assuredly could have come in handy to avoid Florida's embarrassing outcome last season, and now happens to be locked in for the remaining years of his own prime at an annual figure that will only continue to look better as the NHL's COVID-enforced flat cap recovers. 

On the Flames' end of things, losing both Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau in the same offseason would have effectively crippled any other franchise. No one is recovering from that. Those are two bonafide superstars, both of whom were drafted and developed in-house over multiple years and effectively represented an entire era of hockey in Calgary. To watch them each walk out the door within two weeks of each other -- on their own volition, no less, with the latter leaving roughly $16 million on the table to do so -- is a blow that few could withstand. 

But the Flames managed to take what looked to be a devastating offseason and turn it into a clean slate, a canvas upon which the club can chart an exciting new future, while possibly even improving in the short-term. 

Huberdeau is a no-doubt top-five forward in the NHL. Full stop. The 29-year-old is fresh off a 30-goal, 85-assist, 100-point season in which he set a league record for helpers in a single season by a left winger and also logged nearly 20 minutes of ice time per night for the runaway President's Trophy winner. 

Like Tkachuk, players of that ilk rarely become available at any point of their career, and especially not smack-dab in the middle of their prime. But he did, and Calgary scooped him up. 

Huberdeau gives his new team arguably the best playmaker in the entire league, someone who completely opens up the offensive zone for Calgary's still-dangerous forward corps while assuming the role of power-play quarterback -- which he did last season to help give the Panthers the league's top man-advantage. 

To get their hands on Weegar, a right-shot D who finished in the top-15 in Norris voting in the past two seasons, is coming off a 44-point campaign, and logged nearly 24 minutes per night for the Panthers last year, is simply gravy. 

Like Huberdeau, Weegar gives the Flames a completely new element at his position, instantly becoming the top dog on the Flames' blueline despite pulling in the second-lowest cap hit among their entire top-six. The 28-year-old can move the puck, defend the rush, generate offense, and is seemingly due for an uptick in goals next season despite setting a career-high while shooting just 3.9 percent. 

Schwindt and the first-round pick merely act as insurance for the Flames if one or both of their shiny new toys departs in free agency. 

This, of course, is where risk enters the equation. 

Huberdeau and Weegar's impending UFA status acts as a fork in the road for the Flames, giving their front office a period of one season to decide whether they see themselves contending for the long run or if it would be better to tear it down. 

Re-signing one or both of those players will determine which path they take. And it won't be cheap, either. 

Both Huberdeau and Weegar are stars at the apex of their respective primes, and are now each set to cash in on what will assuredly be the most lucrative contracts of their careers come next July. Calgary can certainly pull out all the stops to convince them to stay. But given how their efforts to do the same with Tkachuk and Gaudreau just went, it's not a foregone conclusion by any means. 

If they leave, the Flames hit the re-set button. And if that becomes apparent by the trade deadline, the haul they can acquire for both players will set them up nicely. 

In Florida's case, Tkachuk's addition certainly gives the Panthers another star piece, but it also comes at the cost of the depth that helped them overwhelm the league in the regular season. 

Even if you view the Tkachuk for Huberdeau swap as net-even, losing Weegar is a difficult pill to swallow for a team looking to compete in hockey's toughest division, effectively making Gustav Forsling or Brandon Montour a first-pair defender alongside Aaron Ekblad while possibly bumping the newly-signed Marc Staal into the top-four. 

And that's with a roster that currently sits $3.3 million OVER the salary cap, requiring someone to be either sent down or moved out even after Anthony Duclair's $3 million gets placed on Long-Term Injured Reserve. 

Taking leverage into account, and that is an insanely expensive price for Bill Zito to pay for Tkachuk -- regardless of how good the fiesty young winger is. 

But that's what makes hockey trades so great. Both teams swung for the fences to address their needs, accepting the risks accompanying it with a determination to chase hockey's ultimate prize at all costs. 

How will it turn out? No one knows. But the reverberations of Friday's mega-deal will be felt for months, even years to come.

And isn't that just so much fun? 

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