Sunrise, Fla. — The easiest thing for the Florida Panthers this summer would have been to maintain the status quo, especially after posting the NHL’s best record.
The Panthers went a different way.
Matthew Tkachuk was introduced Monday as the team’s newest addition, three days after the Panthers and Calgary completed a trade that sent Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt and a conditional first-round draft pick to the Flames.
It was the latest big move for Florida, which earlier this summer hired Paul Maurice to take over for Andrew Brunette – a coach of the year finalist as an interim for the Panthers this past season – and now parts ways with both the franchise’s all-time leading scorer in Huberdeau and a defenseman in Weegar who led the team in skater minutes over the past two seasons.
“The changes we’ve made were made with the team and organization’s best interest at heart,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said. “And all for different reasons in each instance. In each instance, to be honest, we’ve acquired somebody who’s extraordinary.”
The Panthers believe extraordinary is the right word for Tkachuk, a 24-year-old coming off his first 100-point season. The organization will never speak in anything but superlatives with regard to Huberdeau – Zito made sure to laud both him and Weegar in his opening remarks Monday – but Tkachuk brings a different style, one that Florida thinks it may have been lacking.
“I bring a certain swagger,” Tkachuk said.
He had Florida at the top of his list of preferred destinations when deciding that he wouldn’t sign a long-term extension with Calgary. The Panthers were a top pick for many reasons: young core, the chance to play alongside Florida captain Aleksander Barkov (“top-two player in the NHL, and that’s a fact,” Tkachuk said), and even the chance to wear flip-flops to work most days.
Barkov is under contract for eight years. So is Tkachuk.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that obviously some of the attributes that Matthew brings are areas of the game that we could really use collectively in our group,” Zito said. “So, when that materialized as a reality, then rather quickly, we had to decide that this was something to pursue.”
Tkachuk had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points for Calgary. Huberdeau tied a career best with 30 goals for Florida, plus set marks with 85 assists and 115 points – both of those being franchise records for the Panthers.
The trade was agreed to Friday afternoon in principle and was completed late Friday night, leading to some surprise phone calls.
“It was a big shock for me,” Huberdeau said Monday when he and Weegar were introduced by the Flames. “It’s part of life. Now we have to go forward.”
Weegar had similar emotions: “I get the part of the hockey business and that side of it.”
Zito said the Panthers clearly understood that they had to give something – a lot, in this case – to get something. Tkachuk is five years younger than Huberdeau, which made some sense from planning out where the franchise will be years down the line.
And he immediately began making fans in Florida. With Calgary, Tkachuk embraced an all-Alberta rivalry with Edmonton. Now with the Panthers, he becomes rivals with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that swept Florida from the second round.
“I hate Edmonton,” Tkachuk said. “But I hate Tampa more now.”
Hockey Canada to combat ‘toxic’ culture
Hockey Canada released a plan on Monday to combat the “toxic” culture in its sport. It comes ahead of a second round of parliamentary hearings into the organization’s handling of sexual assault complaints.
The plan includes putting together a centralized tracking and reporting system for abuse complaints by the end of September, the results of which will be published annually to “hold Hockey Canada accountable.”
The organization also will publish an annual social responsibility report with information on complaints received at both the national team and subnational levels and a scorecard based on “key performance indicators.” Hockey Canada said it was in the process of identifying the measures to be included in the scorecard.
Hockey Canada did not say what data on the complaints will be made public in the report, but historical allegations of sexual assault will not be included.
Hockey Canada also says it will implement enhanced screening for high-performance players – “considering their behavior and track record outside of their time with Hockey Canada and outside of the rink.” Breaching the organization’s code of conduct or refusing to participate in an investigation could result in a lifetime ban.
The measures are in addition to those announced by Hockey Canada in a July 14 open letter, which came amid intense criticism for the organization’s handling of a sexual assault allegation involving eight players and settlement of an ensuing lawsuit following a 2018 gala in London, Ontario. A second sexual assault allegation involving the Canadian team participating at the 2003 junior championship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, surfaced on Friday.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
The women’s national hockey team issued a statement Monday directed at Hockey Canada, saying the allegations are “extremely disturbing and wholly unacceptable” and that the team “intend to be part of the fight for the truth.”
“All of the facts related to this terrible situation must – and will – come to light,” the letter said. “After all, the only way to treat an injury is to acknowledge it fully.”
The team also said that the governing body’s plan is encouraging but “much more work and action” is needed to “fully address the underlying issues,” as is having “women sitting at the table as this process evolves.”
Hockey Canada had its federal funding frozen and multiple corporate partners pause sponsorships after former chief executive Tom Renney and current president and CEO Scott Smith testified about their handling of the 2018 allegation in a parliamentary hearing on June 20. Smith and Renney said the 19 players present at the Ontario event were “strongly encouraged″ to speak with third-party investigators, but not mandated to do so.
Hockey Canada plans an independent review of its governance and a commitment to become a full signatory to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, a new government agency with the power to independently investigate abuse complaints and levy sanctions. Hockey Canada also said previously it would create an independent mechanism to handle complaints at the regional, provincial and local levels, which are not covered by the OSIC.
The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage will hear testimony Tuesday and Wednesday.
Smith and Renney have been subpoenaed to testify Wednesday, along with the heads of the Canadian Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League, as well as Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada’s former vice president of insurance and risk management.
The Canadian Press reported on July 18 that Hockey Canada maintains a fund that draws on minor hockey membership fees to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual abuse claims. That fund will no longer be used to settle sexual assault claims.
The action plan released Monday also includes mandatory chaperones for underage athletes at Hockey Canada events to enforce curfews and ensure no alcohol is consumed, as well as no more “open bar” events.
Quinn brings new life to Sharks
David Quinn has a lot of work ahead of him now that he’s been tabbed to be the next San Jose Sharks head coach.
Perhaps Quinn’s most important job will be trying to maximize the talents of the numerous veteran holdovers from last season’s team that went 32-37-13.
Only two NHL teams last season scored less than the Sharks, who had just three players eclipse the 20-goal mark, not nearly enough to overcome even occasional defensive breakdowns. The Sharks also ranked 21st in goals allowed.
Still, a first-year coach can breathe new life into a roster.
Seven years ago after Pete DeBoer replaced Todd McLellan, Brent Burns went from 60 to 75 points and played more than two minutes per game. Tomas Hertl went from 31 to 46 points and evolved into a better two-way player, and a then-36-year-old Joe Thornton became the Sharks’ leading scorer with 82 points in 82 games.
That 2015-16 Sharks team went to the Stanley Cup Final after missing the playoffs the year before.
No one should expect the same turnaround this upcoming season from the Sharks, who have missed the playoffs for three consecutive years. Still, they can get a lot closer to becoming a contender if several key players return to form.
Here are five Sharks players who could benefit from the coaching change.
1. ERIK KARLSSON: It’s been said before, but the Sharks need to get more bang for their buck from Karlsson, who is entering the fourth year of his eight-year, $92 million contract. Over the last three seasons, Karlsson, as he’s battled injuries, has averaged 0.61 points per game, which ranks 21st among all defensemen who have played at least 130 games in that time.
The Sharks last season went to a more conservative forechecking system to help limit goals against. We’ll learn more about what Quinn has in mind for the Sharks as the weeks go on, but perhaps a more aggressive style can lead to increased scoring opportunities and a more dangerous Karlsson.
Karlsson’s offensive zone start percentage ranged from 51.3 to 57.6 in the last three years.
That number was above 60 percent for much of Karlsson’s time in Ottawa, so perhaps that’s a way for Quinn to get more production from the two-time Norris Trophy winner. That’s if Quinn trusts other defensemen enough to take more defensive zone starts.
Remember, Adam Fox won his Norris with Quinn as his coach.
2. MARC-EDOUARD VLASIC: Vlasic’s ice time dipped more than five minutes per game the last two seasons as he primarily became a third-pair defenseman under former coach Bob Boughner. Now Vlasic has a chance for a fresh start.
Is a return to a top-four role out of the question for Vlasic? The Sharks don’t have an obvious choice to fill out their top two defense pairs after Karlsson, Mario Ferraro and Jaycob Megna. Can either Matt Benning and Markus Nutivarra, who have never averaged more than 17-plus minutes per game, fill that void? Is there room for Nikolai Knyzhov on the 23-man roster?
Vlasic, 35, might be the best option. For years, too, he was the Sharks’ leading penalty killer. But last season he was seventh among all Sharks defensemen in shorthanded time on ice. Maybe he helps fill the void after the departure of Brent Burns.
3. KEVIN LABANC: Perhaps no Sharks player made more visits to Boughner’s doghouse than Labanc, whose ice time and per-game point production fell to career-lows last season before he had shoulder surgery in December.
Labanc’s offensive skills are undeniable, but consistency and commitment to a two-way game have been questioned. Labanc, should he remain with the team, will also have to compete just to get into the lineup after the Sharks bolstered their forward depth.
Still, while the Sharks’ forward additions are all hard-nosed, no one has the scoring pedigree of Labanc, who averaged over 25 assists a season from 2017 to 2021. Maybe there’s a role for him under Quinn.
4. RADIM SIMEK: Like Labanc, it’s no guarantee that Simek will be in the lineup any more under Quinn than he was under Boughner. Simek, either because of injury or healthy scratches, only played in three of San Jose’s 27 games as his average time on ice dropped to a career-low 13:17.
Simek has two years left on his four-year, $9 million contract. If he’s still with the Sharks by the start of the regular season, he’ll likely compete to be on the Sharks’ third defense pair with Nutivaara and Benning. When he’s at his best, though, Simek provides a physical element that a few other Sharks blueliners might not have.
5. LOGAN COUTURE: Couture had a good season in 2021-2022. To go with his usual role of matching up with the opposing team’s top centerman, Couture had 23 goals and 56 points, third most on the team, in 77 games.
But can he get to another level? With a deeper group of forwards around him, perhaps.
A few times last season, Boughner moved Timo Meier alongside Couture’s line just to help the second line generate some offense. Now with Oskar Lindblom and William Eklund possibly in top six forward roles, that should help Couture’s offensive production.