A year ago today, the Florida Panthers shocked the hockey world by pulling off a late-night blockbuster deal — one which brought Matthew Tkachuk to town in a trade which sent two of their top players to the Calgary Flames.
And they have never looked back.
In his first year in South Florida, Tkachuk has been everything the Panthers hoped he would — and, perhaps, more.
Not only did Tkachuk exceeded his scoring total from the season before, but he became one of the biggest names in South Florida sports as he helped lead the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final with playoff heroics.
In his first season here, not only was Tkachuk the MVP of the All-Star Game held in Sunrise, but he was a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP.
Although the Panthers gave up a bundle to get him — Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt and a 2025 first-round pick — he has been worth the cost.
“He is unbelievable,” captain Sasha Barkov said. “Ever since he first got here and I sent him my first text message, it felt like we knew each other for 10 years.
“The way he talked to me and the way he got everyone together in this organization and this team and how we spend time off the ice, he’s been an unreal addition to this team.
”Everyone sees what he is doing on the ice but off the ice, it’s eye-opening how great of a person he is and how he breathes hockey and everything around it every day.”
The news of the Tkachuk trade came in a classic Friday night news dump, announced at a time when many organizations make unpopular news public in an effort to minimize the media reach.
Around 11 p.m. on a Friday night, phones started buzzing as news of the trade unfolded.
Everyone knew Tkachuk wanted out of Calgary, that had been public for about a week before the trade went down.
But Florida going all-in to get him was a calculated effort in which neither the Panthers, Flames nor Tkachuk’s camp leaked information until the deal was done.
“There was a very short window and the timeframe was very quick,” general manager Bill Zito said. “When you have an opportunity like this, you need to pursue it. The cost was very high and we decided it was something we needed to pursue. We are thrilled to be where we are right now.”
Tkachuk, in fact, was asked by his agent (and uncle) Craig Oster to say nothing about the eight-year contract extension he was getting with Calgary which would pave his way to the Panthers in the first sign-and-trade in NHL history.
Only he was on a family vacation to celebrate his brother Brady’s engagement.
Matthew Tkachuk ended up spilling the beans to his happy parents.
“I was the happiest person ever,’’ Tkachuk said. “(Oster) said ‘don’t tell anyone’ so I went to my parents’ room and told them. I was thinking about everything — but we couldn’t say anything.”
Still, the news did not leave the Jersey Shore until it hit the NHL offices which led to the leak to the national media.
The Panthers were not trying to bury the trade that night. They were just trying to keep things under wraps as much as possible as other teams — reportedly Tkachuk’s hometown St. Louis Blues and Carolina Hurricanes — were also in talks with Calgary about a trade.
Zito made sure by throwing in two great players, a top prospect and first-round pick that he would not get outbid by anyone for Tkachuk.
“Situations, like this, when you can add a player like Matthew to your organization, the price is steep,” Zito said. “That’s how things worked out.”
Now a year in, Tkachuk is embedded in South Florida with a house in Fort Lauderdale he compares to a hotel because so many family members stop in to visit during the season.
At 25, he remains one of the top young players in the NHL — and has seven years remaining on his contract.
The future is bright for both Tkachuk and the Panthers.
While they were all disappointed with the way the season ended in a 5-game loss to Vegas in the Cup Final, the road to the championship is something which will not be soon forgotten.
Tkachuk’s overtime winners against Carolina and trying to play through a fractured sternum will not be, either.
“It just shows how badly we wanted it, which makes it that much harder now,” Tkachuk said a few days after the season ended.
“There are so many things throughout the season that it’s just such a grind to get to where we are are. … It was such an unbelievable season to be a part of for my first one down here.’’
Yeah it was.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Now: Free agency period is open
- Mid-September: Training Camp, South Florida
- Sept. 25: Preseason starts; Doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends; v. Tampa Bay Lightning @ Sunrise
- Oct. 12: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season at Minnesota Wild
- Oct. 19: 2023-24 Home Opener vs. Toronto Maple Leafs