There may be some soul searching going on in south Florida.
Aaron Ekblad and the Florida Panthers entered the offseason with big question marks around their future after the 2021-22 season saw them win the Presidents' Trophy but get swept by the state-rival Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the playoffs.
The first question - over whether interim head coach Andrew Brunette should be hired full-time - was answered relatively early, with general manager Bill Zito opting for veteran bench boss Paul Maurice instead.
Exactly a month later, the NHL was rocked by a blockbuster trade that saw the Calgary Flames trade disgruntled star forward Matthew Tkachuk to the Panthers for a package including superstar Jonathan Huberdeau and stalwart defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.
Just as shocked as anybody, Ekblad shared his reaction to the deal and the gamut of emotions he felt in an interview with The Daily Faceoff's Matt Larkin.
“There is a correct way to answer that question, and that would be, ‘It’s a business and I’m sad to see [them] go but happy with the return," he said. "Realistically, yes, I’m very happy with Matthew [Tkachuk] as a player. I think he’s going to be great for us."
While anyone would be excited to share the ice with a talent like Tkachuk, the 26-year-old Ekblad couldn't help but think about the teammates - and friends - that went the other way in the move.
"Sad doesn’t even cover it when it comes to the two guys that we lost. They’re great friends of mine. I played with them for a really long time. It’s all part of the business, but at the end of the day it was a shock to see them go and to lose them as teammates.
"I’m going to try and stay as close as I can to those guys. They’re great friends and good people and I’m going to miss them a ton.”
Ekblad and Huberdeau spent eight seasons together in Florida, overseeing a franchise turnaround that took them from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to the top of the league, as each developed into elite players at their respective positions. Since establishing himself as a full-time NHLer in the 2017-18 season, Weegar spent the majority of his time on the ice with Ekblad, with the duo emerging as a one of the most reliable defensive partnerships in the league.
The Panthers should still make the playoffs this season and could contend for top spot in the East, but one must wonder if Ekblad will ever get as good of a shot at a Stanley Cup after a franchise-best season and an offseason overhaul that has the team looking for a new identity.
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