Dawn of a New Hunt: How This Offseason Opened up a New Era of Panthers Hockey

        

Matthew Tkachuk (left) was traded to Florida in a blockbuster move by the Florida Panthers in
the free agency during the off-season (pic via: Miami Herald and *** Machine Never Breaks)

A new NHL season is upon us after the best season in franchise history for the Florida Panthers. Unfortunately, it ended in a complete upset, giving more reasons for Bolts fans to taunt Panthers fans, with the defending and cross state rivals the Tampa Bay Lightning blowing the Panthers out of the water with a 4-0 series sweep. This happened despite Brayden Point being out of the Tampa lineup and the Panthers having a much stronger roster than the 2021 series, with the likes of top Buffalo Sabres player Sam Reinhart, veteran presence “Jumbo” Joe Thornton who was the first overall pick in the 1997 draft, a blowout season by both Mason Marchment and waiver-pickup Gustav Forsling and acquiring 7x NHL All-Star and captain of the Philadelphia Flyers Claude Giroux at the trade deadline.

So what gives? What did the Panthers need to do in the off-season to get them closer to the Stanley Cup, if anything at all? We knew, or at least we thought we knew, the Panthers core would stay intact, but assumed that the walls surrounding the castle would fall due to the salary cap issues surrounding the team, Anthony Duclair being out long term with an injury that required surgery, and the coaching situation behind the bench. Andrew Brunette was listed as interim head coach going in to the second round, and a lot of depth contracts that were on the Panthers cap hit during the playoffs would expire come July 13th, the date of free agency.

July 13th rolls around, and everyone is anxiously awaiting lunch time so general managers can make their offers to free agents. The Panthers reportedly were only able to offer Claude Giroux a 1 year, $1 million dollar contract, and he wanted to stay, but knowing his worth, he packed his bags and was the first signing of the free agent frenzy, picking up a 3-year $6.5 million dollar contract with the Ottawa Senators right when the clock struck 12. Giroux spends most of his off-seasons in Ottawa, so this wasn’t as surprising as other changes to follow.

The Panthers ended up also losing Mason Marchment, Noel Acciari, Markus Nutivaara, Joe Thornton, Jonas Johansson and prospect Chase Priskie to free agency shoppers, but they were able to bring in veteran Michael Del Zotto, Anthony Bitetto, Chris Tierney, Colin White, Rudolfs Balcers, who was a surprising give up from the San Jose Sharks, and made an interesting splash by signing a 2006 Stanley Cup winner and hockey veteran Eric Staal to a professional tryout (PTO) and his brother, Marc Staal. As far as goaltending goes, the Panthers picked up Alex Lyon, but goaltending is not exactly the biggest issue on the Panthers radar at this point. With the Panthers backs against the wall with the salary cap, all of these are depth signings that are either at the league minimum salary cap or not very far above it, and we were told that Panthers general manager Bill Zito’s talks with Huberdeau on a contract extension were “happening” and “that was all they could report.”

On June 22, 2022, the Panthers announced that Paul Maurice would be taking over behind the bench, marking the second time in franchise history the team has removed a Jack Adams award finalist. Removed being the keyword, because Brunette would be offered a position amongst the coaching staff, but ultimately, he ended up joining Lindy Ruff and the New Jersey Devils. Paul Maurice is the former coach of the Winnipeg Jets, and the hiring sparked another debate amongst the fans of the team due to better options being available, Maurice’s record as an NHL coach, as well as the Winnipeg Jets locker room issues.

Florida Panthers graphic welcoming Paul Maurice as the new coach (pic via: NHL website)

Meanwhile on the other side of the league and the continent, another team is having issues with top players of their own. The Calgary Flames, arguably one of–if not the best–team at 5v5 in the regular season last year, are about to lose two of their top playmakers in Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk due to desires to play elsewhere. Johnny Gaudreau ended up being signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets for less money than what was offered by teams like the New Jersey Devils, leaving not only Calgary Flames fans, but New Jersey Devils fans very disappointed. Gaudreau is from New Jersey, and it was believed the Devils were all in on him, so the disappointment from Devils fans is warranted. The signing even brought out a jab from a local Calgary news anchor.

Flames forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk celebrating after a goal (pic via FlamesNation)

            Tkachuk, at 24 years of at age, is automatically a restricted free agent, meaning teams outside of the Calgary Flames can offer Tkachuk a contract, but the Flames are allowed the opportunity to match or beat said contract. On July 18th, the Calgary Flames filed for club-elected salary arbitration with Tkachuk, eliminating the possibility of an outside team offering Tkachuk a contract. Days go by, and we have not heard a peep about a signing or trade moving Tkachuk out of Calgary, and Tkachuk was given a contract arbitration date of August 11. Suddenly, word got out that there was a list of teams Matthew Tkachuk was interested in being traded to. One of the teams listed was the Florida Panthers. Most Panthers fans reacted by stating that it obviously would not happen because the team does not have the room for Tkachuk on the cap hit. Another day or two went by, Tkachuk still has not been signed or traded, and we started to see some fans mention how a trade for Tkachuk could work, or that they would love to see Tkachuk in a Panthers uniform. These statements were generally received with people questioning how crazy the person was, because trading for Tkachuk would require giving up assets that don’t make sense, and the Panthers have only one first round pick in their inventory at this point.

Then, on July 22, 2022 at 11:05 PM Eastern Time, Elliotte Friedman, hockey analyst for Sportsnet, dropped a bombshell on the hockey world by tweeting out the following:

Elliotte Friedman announces the trade that changed the Florida Panthers forever

Personally, I was in the bath trying to relax when this was tweeted out, and it felt like time stood still and reversed for a second. It was at this moment I knew we were either losing Barkov or Huberdeau. Then, the full trade came through: Panthers legend and fan favorite Jonathan Huberdeau, along with Mackenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt, and the Panthers only first round draft pick in 2025 to Calgary in return for Matthew Tkachuk, locked in at 9.5 million per year for 8 years, and a 4th round draft pick in 2025. The first round pick sent to Calgary is lottery protected.

The trade had happened, and the Panthers social media profiles posted thank you graphics, along with Zito issuing a statement wishing nothing but the best for Jonathan Huberdeau, but it took a few days for fans to hear from Huberdeau himself. It was revealed that Huberdeau was not happy with how the trade went down, and video footage surfaced of Huberdeau looking sad and upset during a workout session with friends. Nearly 3 days later Huberdeau posted to Instagram thanking the fans for their unprecedented support since the team drafted him in 2011. We later found out that Huberdeau was in the middle with hanging out with friends when his phone suddenly started ringing and the caller ID read “Bill Zito”. Huberdeau said “I don’t think he is calling me about a contract extension,” and Zito wasn’t. Huberdeau picked up the phone and Zito had told him the news. “You’ve been traded to Calgary” Zito said. Huberdeau claims he had no words.

The grass seemed greener on the other side for the new Panther in Matthew Tkachuk. He came into his first press conference with the team with a bright attitude and said, “I hate Edmonton, but I hate Tampa more now.” This quote immediately resonated with the fan base, and merch has already been made with his words. Tkachuk was referring to his western conference semi-final battle with Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers this past post-season.

The blockbuster trade sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world. This was the first time a 100-point player was traded for another 100-point player since Wayne Gretzky, and the trade has sparked somewhat of a feud between Panthers and Flames fans. It is not the first time a major player from the Panthers has moved to Calgary. The flames at one point saw both Jay Bouwmeester and Panthers all-time franchise star Olli Jokinen on their rosters at one point or another. Both fanbases have an argument for winning this trade. It was hard for Panthers fans to say goodbye at first, but they realized Huberdeau was not performing in the playoffs and was about to go into his 30’s, when a hockey player’s performance begins to decline. In return they got a new 100-point player that hasn’t even hit the prime age for a hockey star, while Huberdeau just had his first 100-point season at 29.

Flames fans believe they have won the trade because they are not only giving up someone who has also been criticized for not performing in the playoffs, but someone who did not want to be with the team. They also got one of the Panthers top defensemen in Mackenzie Weegar, along with a prospect, and a first rounder that could become the next Jarome Iginla if the Flames are lucky enough. They got all while Jack Adams winning coach Daryl Sutter is leading things behind the bench, although that could be a good or bad thing depending on who you ask. The downside for Flames fans in the trade? Huberdeau and Weegar are now officially locked up to the long term deals they wanted. They will be there until they are in their late 30’s, and the Flames are putting themselves in a scenario that could see them sitting with in salary cap hell in the future. They have other star contracts they need to worry about as well. Only time will tell who really won this trade, but Tkachuk has looked stellar at training camp.

Pre-season rolls around and the Panthers open with a double-header in Nashville like always. Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov led the team to victory with a goal in overtime, putting the team up 4-3. Tkachuk made his pre-season debut in the second game, but did not have an impact in the Panthers 4-0 loss to the Predators. Tkachuk finished 2 preseason games with 0 points, and Huberdeau finished 4 preseason games with the Flames and recorded 2 goals. There were other Panthers making names for themselves during the pre-season, including Aleksi Heponiemi, who showed he’s developed while spending time in the minors, and Zac Dalpe, who made his own little underdog story, scoring a goal in a 3-2 win after being tossed back and forth from the minors to the pros, all against the Lightning who practically had their opening night roster together for the game. The Staal brothers haven’t been performing the best, leading to calls from fans to release/put them on waivers. Defenseman Matt Kiersted has not been a favorite among the fans as well.

On October 9, 2022, the Panthers put Chris Tierney, Gerald Mayhew, Alex Lyon, Del Zotto, Aleksi Heponiemi, and Lucas Carlsson on waivers. The last two names took the fan base by surprise. The current belief is that Bill Zito is making room to sign Eric Staal to a league minimum contract.

The Panthers currently sit $2.5 million above the salary cap and need to be cap compliant come October 13th when they open the season. There are two routes to get them back above water. One of them is offloading Hornqvist’s 5.3 million dollar contract to another team and letting the roster depth take his spot. The only problem with that is Hornqvist has an 8 team no-trade clause (NTC), and not many teams are willing to take on his cap hit for what he gave the Panthers last season. The second route is to put Anthony Duclair on long term injured reserve, but with this route the Panthers are delaying the inevitable. Duclair is expected to return mid-season, and in order for him to play, the Panthers would have to take him off long term injured reserve, putting them back over the cap.

The Panthers open their Presidents Trophy defending season on October 13th on Long Island against the New York Islanders, with the home opener being on October 19th against the Philadelphia Flyers.

PuckPedia Florida Panthers Team Page

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