It’s the kind of trade that’s only cooked up at the bar, and almost certainly not before midnight. It’s only then and there that the right kind of desperation can be tuned into, as fans of whatever team it may be, try and live in denial for just a little while longer that their window of contending hasn’t slammed shut. There’s always one more move or signing that can extend the hope another year. Sure, maybe you’ve already lost one of the best wingers in the game. And another has said he’s tail lights as soon as he gets a chance, meaning you get one uncomfortable season together at best. But more likely, you know that your team has to cash in for whatever they can, even if it’s certainly to be no more than 60 cents on the dollar (or 60 cents on the loonie, as the case may be).
You cook up all kinds of hopeful scenarios in your head that will keep your team right where it’s been after losing their wantaway star(s), but deep down in places that only rumble menacingly, you know that it’s likely over and you’ll be returning to THE MIDDLE soon enough for an indeterminate and interminable sentence.
Except, sometimes, every so often, weird stuff happens. This is hockey after all. And maybe you find another team whose GM has turned into Dr. Rockso, and not only are you getting more than 60 cents for that dollar, but you’re also actually getting more than that dollar. That’s where Flames fans found themselves last week when they were able to pack off Matthew Tkachuk to God’s waiting room and the Panthers sent Jonathan Huberdeau and McKenzie Weegar (along with a prospect and a protected first-round pick) back to Alberta. It’s the most blockbuster trade in the NHL in some time — and completely out of the blue.
Because Tkachuk had made it clear he would not sign long-term with Calgary, it was assumed that the already scarred-from-Gaudreau Flames would have to accept some bindle-plus package from a team taking complete advantage of their lack of leverage, and really begin to think about whether it was time to move on from this iteration of the Flames that quite frankly, hadn’t done all that much. Or just suffer through one last let’s-stay-together-until-the-kids-graduate season together. After all, Gaudreau and Tkachuk hitting the bricks would be taking 219 points from last season out with them.
Instead, the Panthers sent 115 points back in the form of Huberdeau, and possibly the first-pairing D-man the Flames haven’t really had in Weegar. The latter is the key to this whole deal. Weegar put up 44 points last year from the back end with only a sniff of power play time. He also has some glittering analytic numbers, with Corsi percentages and expected goal percentages in the high 50s (though with some heavily slanted offensive zone starts last year, but the previous two seasons he still had glossy nerd numbers while starting more of his shifts outside the offensive end). The caution light is that Weegar amassed most of those numbers alongside Aaron Ekblad, and the Flames don’t have an Ekblad. Maybe Rasmus Andersson can do an acceptable impression, as he’s only 25 and has flashed being a real thing at times, but that’s still in the hope file rather than the expected one.
The Huberdeau-Tkachuk swap is more obvious. The Flames were probably delighted to get a genuine top-line winger back for the out-the-door Tkachuk, though Huberdeau is not as complete a player as Tkachuk. With Huberdeau as close to unrestricted free agency as Tkachuk, there were some in South Florida who soured on Huberdeau after a one-point performance in 10 playoff games last year. And his metrics did drop significantly once the postseason started, going from 0.86 xG per game to 0.55 and 12.4 attempts on net per game at even-strength to 10.6. That happens sometimes, especially when you run into the Lightning and a Caps team that’s well versed in gumming things up and keeping it slow and tight. How much anyone wants to read into that is up to them.
Most have been fixated on the impending free agency of both Huberdeau and Weegar, while Tkachuk immediately signed an eight-year extension with the Cats for a cool $9.5 million per year. But it’s still a net win for the Flames, who would have only had one year with Tkachuk anyway, and got two players in return. Huberdeau is almost certainly going to command as much if not more than Tkachuk did and should Weegar flourish he won’t be cheap either. But the Flames will lose Milan Lucic’s demon-anchor of a contract after next season, and they’ll have enough players entering the final year of their deal that can probably be moved to keep both Huberdeau and Weegar around should they choose. If they really want to get spicy, they can find a new home for Jacob Markstrom and his $6 million salary and turn things over to golden child Dustin Wolf in net.
As for the Panthers, you can see the logic in getting the younger and more rounded Tkachuk for probably a shade less than Huberdeau would have gotten should he put up another 100 points or thereabouts next season. However, if playoff performances were a worry for Huberdeau, Tkachuk wasn’t really anywhere to be found against the much worse Oilers after that bananas Game 1 as the Flames inexcusably crashed out in five games. But, that was just one series and all that. Still, the Panthers have a very iffy health-wise Ekblad and not much else on the blue line, and they actually got a decent playoff performance out of Sergei Bobrovsky and it got them pretty much dick. Will that happen again?
They are capped out as all fuck, whereas the Flames still have some $9 million to play with and more flexibility on the way. The Panthers don’t have any of that, and still are in a division with the Lightning and Leafs. The Bruins are still going to have Patrice Bergeron around, and the Red Wings might not be a doormat anymore. Sure, they’ve got Tkachuk locked in, but locked in for what, exactly? Oh, and they’ve hired a total foot-brain as a coach.
It’s still impressive that the Flames were able to come out of what looked like a no-win situation and still be favorites for the Pacific Division, and with options (Nazem Kadri is still out there). The story is supposed to go that star players leave Canadian teams for American dollars and everyone bemoans the fact that players don’t want to freeze their balls off in a place that smells like horseshit most of the year. It’s the natural state north of the 49th. The Flames were able to turn that on its head, and at the very least, get one more season to roll the dice in a shitty division in a thin conference. There are many worse ways to be.