GLENDALE, Ariz. – Florida Panthers top line left winger Jonathan Huberdeau described an emotional morning in Las Vegas.
Reflecting on seven years of ups and downs, he contemplated how something as simple as driving to the rink will seem completely different.
"Troch and me have been great friends since he got here," Huberdeau said Monday in Glendale, just hours after finding out his longtime friend and teammate Vincent Trocheck had been traded to Carolina. "We kinda grew up together in this organization. It's really tough to see a guy like that leave. I was thinking (about) going to the rink; we go together every time and now I'm gonna have to go by myself."
Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov had a hard time finding the words when asked about Trocheck being gone.
"It was tough to wake up to the news, and then see the guy," Barkov said. "Sad moment."
A few moments later, after mentioning what a good situation Trocheck was heading towards in Carolina, he looked up and boldly stated, "Obviously, right now, it's tough to understand what just happened."
Like Huberdeau, Barkov was holding court in an empty locker room in Gila River Arena. Almost every player had come and gone following a post-trade deadline practice at the Arizona Coyotes home rink.
Barkov was drafted by Florida in 2013, two years after Trocheck was selected. From Barkov's perspective, Trocheck was as much a part of the Panthers as the logo on the front of his sweater.
"You see the guy every day for seven years, and kinda shared everything I had here, since the first day I came to the training camp," Barkov said. "He's the guy who was here forever, and all I have right now…it's tough."
There aren't many people in the organization that had been around as long as Trocheck, but one of them was just as responsible for the 26-year-old's arrival as he was for his departure.
Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon, who orchestrated the deal sending Trocheck to Carolina, admitted it was "very tough," to trade the player that he had drafted nine years before.
"It was very emotional, but that's part of the deal," Tallon said. "I have good relationships with our players, I'm friendly with them, but bottom line is what's best for the Florida Panthers, and that's why we felt it was necessary to do this. It was emotional, but that's the way it is. It's a business. We've got to move on."
HOW IT WENT DOWN
It's hard to deny that if Florida had come out of the All-Star break the way they went into it, Trocheck would more than likely still be a member of the Panthers.
Florida was riding a six-game winning streak when a ten-day disruption of their schedule changed everything. Winning just four of the following 13 games should have put a decent amount of distressing distance between the Panthers and a playoff spot, but an equally struggling Maple Leafs squad has kept Florida right in the thick of things.
As the sun went down on deadline day, the Panthers sat just two points behind Toronto for third pace in the Atlantic Division, with one game in hand.
Tallon knew Florida was fortunate to still be in the race, but felt something had to change.
"Since the All-Star break, our team has really struggled, and we wanted to find a way to shake things up," Tallon explained, saying he started receiving calls on Trocheck during that time. Once the offers became competitive, Tallon said he felt it was the "right path" for the team to pull the trigger.
"It was a consensus from all of us that this was a fair deal, and it was something we felt we should do, not only for the present, but for the future," he said.
In exchange for Trocheck, who has two years remaining on his contract with a $4.75M average annual value, Florida received a pair of solid NHL players on expiring contracts and two prospects playing in their first year of professional North American hockey.
Erik Haula, 28, and Lucas Wallmark, 24, are both versatile centermen (Haula can also play wing) who should help Florida become a more responsible, 200-foot team.
Haula also arrives with a wealth of playoff experience and knowledge, having made deep playoff runs with both Minnesota and Vegas.
In addition to helping Florida's defensive game, the added boost in the faceoff circle is something that was clearly discussed ahead of the deadline.
"They both give you some predictability in the middle, I think they're good in the faceoff circle," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said. "It helps us to have more options in the middle; we have some guys from the middle that can go to the wing, so we can have multiple guys taking faceoffs per line. We feel the depth is going to help us organizationally, as well."
Tallon, who likely had statistics and scouting reports fresh in his mind after a long leadup to the deadline, was quick to mention the versatility each brings to the table before listing a litany of attributes when asked how the new additions could help the team.
"They're both smart players," Tallon began. "Haula gives us more speed and experience. Wallmark is a very good two-way player; very smart, very heady player. He can kill penalties and can also play on the power play too. It gives our coaches more options all the way through the lineup."
WHAT COMES NEXT
It's becoming clear that the Panthers best path to a postseason berth will come from the third spot in the Atlantic Division. That being the case, there is no arguing that, with 20 games to go, Florida controls its playoff destiny.
After 62 games, the Panthers hold a respectable 32-24-6 record, good for 70 points.
Toronto, having played 63 games, sits two points ahead of the Cats and currently hold that third and final Atlantic Division playoff spot. But, like Florida, the Leafs have also stumbled since the All-Star break.
The sense around the Panthers is that once the team shores up it's defensive play, things will begin falling into place.
"I think there's always going to be enough offense with our team," Quenneville said. "In the last two games, we probably scored enough goals to get points in them. That's why we've got to make sure keeping the puck out of our net is equally important to scoring goals. That's not just a defense(men) thing, I think it's a team thing."
The first step for the team will be putting everything that's happened to this point behind them. A fresh start will be key, but that's easier said than done when players feel more than a little responsible for one of the most popular guys on the team being shipped out of town.
"We kinda decided it, the way we played since the All-Star break," Huberdeau said of the trade. "It's tough to see that. Maybe he wouldn't have been moved if we would've played better."
Added Barkov: “When somebody like that leaves, other guys (have to) step up and other guys have to bring his passion and everything in a game. Everybody needs to be better, especially in the situation we are right now. We got a couple good players from Carolina, really skilled and hardworking guys from an organization that works really hard, so they’re going to bring that to the team, and I’m really happy to have them here.”