The 2021-22 season ended in embarrassing fashion for the Florida Panthers. After cruising their way to the NHL’s best record and the President’s Trophy, they found themselves out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after only playing 10 games.
This did not sit well with Panthers’ management. Despite many nights where they crushed their opponents, they look vastly outmatched as the playoffs wore on. It was clear the team had to do something about it.
GM Bill Zito wasted no time in making key changes to his team. The first was naming Paul Maurice as head coach to replace Andrew Brunette. The Panthers are hoping that his veteran presence will be enough to find more sustained success in the playoffs.
But then on Friday night likely while you were sleeping, the Panthers were involved in what many folks are calling the biggest trade in the salary cap era. They were able to acquire Matthew Tkachuk after he signed a new eight-year deal while still with the Flames. This sign and trade saw the Panthers give up huge pieces in Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt and a conditional first-round pick.
A deeper dive into this from the Panthers’ perspective reveals their motive in making such an earth-shattering trade. It’s clear they were thinking about the Atlantic Division powerhouses in the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs.
An Answer to the Lightning and Maple Leafs
One of the best series of the entire playoffs happened in the first round when the Lightning and Maple Leafs played each other. The series went the distance with Game 7 ending with a 2-1 score.
That series was fantastic to watch. There were big goals, huge saves and momentum swings. The Maple Leafs were one goal away in Game 6 from sending the Lightning home early. Although they couldn’t finish the deal, it was clear these were the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Although the Panthers had the most points during the regular season, they were given a hard time by the veteran Washington Capitals. They ultimately prevailed in six games, but questions lingered about how they’d fare in round two.
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The Panthers scored three goals in four games against the Lightning in a four-game sweep. They had no answers for the Cup champions. What was thought to be an intriguing in-state series turned into nothing more than a bad mismatch.
This is why Zito had to do something. The Panthers are clearly good enough to make the playoffs. But they weren’t good enough to make a deep run in them. If they were going to even entertain the idea of winning the Stanley Cup, big change was necessary. They needed to let the Lightning and Maple Leafs know that they’re serious about their aspirations.
With the Tkachuk trade, the Panthers have provided a clear answer and message indicating that they plan on staying around for several years. No one is going to push these Panthers around anymore.
In Tkachuk, they get one of the best power forwards in the NHL. They also get someone who thrives in the playoff environment. While the duo of Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov was dynamic, the Barkov/Tkachuk duo is not only as dynamic but they’ll be nasty to play against too.
The hard reality is that the Lightning did whatever they wanted to the Panthers at will. When a response was required, the Panthers couldn’t come up with anything. In Tkachuk, they now have that answer.
The Panthers also have Tkachuk to unleash against the Maple Leafs. If there’s one thing the Maple Leafs have traditionally struggled with, it’s being able to stop high-end power forwards. Pierre-Luc Dubois had his way against them in the bubble. As currently constructed, the Maple Leafs don’t appear to have an answer to Tkachuk on their roster.
The fact that Tkachuk had the Panthers on his short list of preferred destinations was too much to ignore for Zito. He had an opportunity to secure this player for eight years and wasted no time in doing so. It took trading a 100-point player, a good defenseman and a first-round pick to do so. But there is no question what the Panthers’ motive was here. They want to not only win the Atlantic. They want to win the Stanley Cup.
In Tkachuk, they are one step closer to their goal while putting the rest of the division on notice.
Games Will Be Must See TV
With Tkachuk in the division, all of these games regular season and playoffs would be must-see TV. One moment, he and Barkov will connect on offense. The next moment he will get under the skin of his opposition.
The Panthers needed a disturber on their team. While they could score at will, they didn’t have an answer when teams could shut them down. They looked lost. That won’t be the case anymore. Tkachuk will bring the Panthers into the battle every game with no hesistation.
How will the Lightning adjust to having to play Tkachuk? Can the Maple Leafs somehow slow him down? Answers to those questions are not the only reason these games are must watch. The outcomes of these games should determine home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
The Lightning and Maple Leafs might still be the Eastern Conference favorites. But with Tkachuk locked up on a long-term deal, this is no longer a two-horse race in the Atlantic. The Panthers have answered. Game on.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.