Analyzing the Tkachuk for Huberdeau/Weegar trade: Did Flames or Panthers win?

MacKenzie Weegar, right, and Jonathan Huberdeau will bring something different to their new team, the Calgary Flames. (Terry Renna/AP)

It’s been a few days since the Flames and Panthers shook up the hockey world with a banger blockbuster trade. It’s not often superstars are on the move in the NHL, and this one saw two switching teams.

When it was clear that Matthew Tkachuk was not willing to sign long-term in Calgary, management took the opportunity to move him to increase the return. Since that sentiment was known, it wouldn’t have been too surprising if they lost leverage and couldn’t maximize the return to the heights of this calibre player. It’s not easy to win a trade as a team moving the best skater in all of it. But there were teams with interest and offers — but clearly, the Panthers were the most enticing.

After first losing Johnny Gaudreau to free agency and Tkachuk via trade, the Flames bring back Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, along with a first-rounder and a prospect (Cole Schwindt). The Panthers, on the other hand, get the best player in all of this and extended him for eight years, at $9.5 million a year on average. So now that the dust has settled a bit and we’ve all have a second to digest the trade, and hear what all players involved (and managers) have had to say, let’s break it all down.

The biggest piece of this deal is obviously Tkachuk, who is coming off a 104-point career-year. With 42 goals on the year — also a career-high — his shooting is a key aspect of his offence. Tkachuk has really smooth hands and can pull off some really stellar plays, even in tight spaces. He can drive to the quality areas of the ice and concentrates most of his shots to the home plate area, even at 5-on-5 when he has less time and space out there. Plus, he can play a net-front role, which contributed to him collecting such a high rate of inner-slot shots. The winger is among the best at creating offence off the cycle thanks to his ability to generate scoring chances.

An underrated aspect of his game is his ability to set up his teammates as well. Tkachuk’s more of a dual-threat than he gets credit for. He sends his teammates a high volume of passes in the offensive zone and can move the puck right to the quality areas of the ice.

Tkachuk is responsible back in his own zone as well, which upgrades that winger slot for Florida. If he ends up playing with Aleksandar Barkov, that’s two elite two-way players on one line. Or, it could create a one-two punch with the duo split between the top-six, whether he’s centered by Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, or even Anton Lundell for lineup balance.

But there is a ripple effect from this trade, that doesn’t have to do with Tkachuk directly. The loss of Weegar only weakens the Panthers team-defence that was already suspect, which puts more pressure on a starting goaltender who hasn’t always played up to expectations.

On the other side of it, there’s Calgary. After Gaudreau walked, it could have made all the sense in the world to stay a step back and quickly re-tool to extend their window. The Flames did lose their most valuable player, after all. The Tkachuk situation put them in a position to lose both of their superstar forwards.

In Huberdeau, they add one right back. He’s less of a Tkachuk replacement, and has more similarity to Gaudreau, thanks to his puck movement — although there’s a bit of a gap, and much of it shows below the surface.

Despite leading the league in assists (both raw totals and rate), Huberdeau didn’t earn the title of ‘best passer’ in 2021-22 — that was reserved for Gaudreau. The former Panthers’ winger didn’t rank as highly when it came to primary shot assists in all situations, or passes that directly preceded shots, and that showed on the scoresheet as well with a lower percentage of primary helpers.

*Viz from April 20, 2022

Plus, Huberdeau’s 5-on-5 impact wasn’t as strong this past season. That doesn’t change the fact that the Flames added a player who can move the puck better than most in the league. The winger can create shooting lanes for his teammates with his distribution; he puts out a high volume of passes, makes his own lanes to thread the puck to the slot, and completes his pass attempts at a high clip. Plus, Huberdeau has an effective shot when he opts to use it — but not to the extent where he’ll replace Gaudreau, who generated the second best rate of scoring chances off the rush at 5-on-5. Nor does he carry the puck in nearly as much as the former Flame. However, his passing could help keep Elias Lindholm (if paired together) towards the top of the charts in shot attempts off the cycle if he can get him the puck as often as his former linemate. And Bennett, who Huberdeau was often paired with, did generate quite a few scoring chances off the rush in Florida, thanks to help from his teammate’s set ups, so it’s possible that the Flames can find a way to keep those rush shots up.

What helps Calgary’s addition is that they’re a much better team defensively, and that structure should support Huberdeau more than Florida’s riskier style of play. Huberdeau does have some defensive struggles because of his all-offence focus; but within this structure, it shouldn’t standout as much.

Speaking of defence, the Flames addressed that with this trade as well with Weegar. He’s been sound back in his own zone for quite a few seasons, but really has gained appreciation for it in more recent years. Recency bias may say otherwise after some memorable misplays in the playoffs, but those are only a small snippet of his NHL career. And time in Calgary could strengthen his efforts on the backend even more — even if he doesn’t have Aaron Ekblad on his side for support.

Weegar’s defensive efforts start before opponents can even get into the offensive zone; at 5-on-5 he can be counted on to deny entry, whether he steps up in the neutral zone or closes the gap back in his own end to limit scoring chances. The defender does his best to block passing lanes and knock opponents off the puck — whether with his stick or a hit to change possession. Plus, he can help break the puck out of his own end with control.

The question is fit. The Flames already had a pretty solid top-four on defence without Weegar in the mix. Now, technically their top-five is even better. But who shifts to the third pair? Or, does a defender move to make room for Weegar in the top-four, maybe to bring back a forward to address the loss of their other top-six forward? That likely only happens if there’s a guarantee he’s sticking around for more than just the season.

That’s the risky part of this all. Huberdeau and Weegar both just entered the final year of their contracts. And that puts Calgary back to a situation they were just in with key pending unrestricted free agents. But the Flames have options on how to proceed, depending on their priorities for this upcoming season. And in the meantime, they just added two very strong players to their roster who should be in a position to succeed with the team’s defensive structure around.

So neither team walks away from the trade a loser. There’s a downside from both perspectives, but quite a bit of upside thanks to the calibre of the players each squad just added.

Data via Sportlogiq

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