Jonathan Huberdeau is one of the few bright spots this season for the Florida Panthers, a glow that might be enough to grab the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
The emphasis is on might, since the race between him, Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens and Cory Conacher of the Tampa Bay Lightning is expected to last to the last game of the season. Before Friday’s games, if scoring is the only criterion for the award (and sometimes it is hard to argue otherwise given a few picks over the years), Conacher was in front with nine goals and 24 points in 33 games, while Huberdeau had 13 goals and 23 points in 35 games and Gallagher had 10 goals and 19 points in 29 games.
However, when one of the biggest factors in the performance of first-year NHLers is taken into account (whom they get to play with), then Huberdeau should have a leg up with the voters from the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
Until recently, when his play flagged, which is common for rookies, Conacher got to spend a lot of time with linemates Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell, with a healthy dose of Martin St. Louis. Gallagher is on a line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais.
Huberdeau, on the other hand, labours on the worst team in hockey with the oft injured, much travelled Peter Mueller and Drew Shore as his linemates for the most part. Producing 23 points in 35 games under those conditions would be impressive for a veteran, let alone a 19-year-old, so it is understandable Huberdeau had his own drop-off of late.
He did not score a goal from March 8 until Thursday night, a span of 10 games, although he did have five assists in that period. But he broke his slump in a big way, scoring in the third period against the Buffalo Sabres to help force overtime, and adding a goal in the shootout as the Panthers won 5-4.
“You always evaluate if the scoring chances are drying up,” said Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen, who says he is not concerned with the scoring drought. “I think he’s creating chances every game and he’s getting good opportunities. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, [the scoring] is going to start up again.”
There is another consideration. Rookies should also be judged on whom they have to play against as well as whom they play with. Now that the word is getting around about Huberdeau, he is drawing minutes against the opposition’s best shut-down artists.
“There are competent coaching staffs around the league and they’re aware with time and space this guy can operate and do a lot of good things,” Dineen said. “You play the Boston Bruins and who is [Zdeno] Chara playing against? Against us, he gets a fair share of Jon Huberdeau. To me, I always look at that as a great challenge for great players.”
What impresses Dineen and others on the Panthers is the way Huberdeau conducts himself both on and off the ice. The native of Saint-Jérôme, Que., could have come to the team with hubris rather than humility, since he was the MVP at the 2011 Memorial Cup shortly before going third overall in the NHL entry draft. He also starred for the Canadian team in the last two world junior championships.
Dineen says the only reason Huberdeau did not make the Panthers as an 18-year-old in 2011-12 was that management wanted to give him another year to put some muscle on his 6-foot-1 frame, which is still a rangy 177 pounds.
“Last year, we didn’t think he was ready for an 82-game schedule,” Dineen said. “He came in this year and showed great creativity to his game. He’s a smooth operator in tight spaces.
“I also think he’s a very good teammate. By saying that I think he’s respectful and understands the hierarchy of a dressing room. But he also understands he’s an important piece and he has to go out night in and night out and play a strong game.”
Huberdeau doesn’t think he has mastered anything yet in the NHL.
“I would say the execution is a lot faster here than junior,” he said. “The size of the guys, too, is much bigger here and I’m trying to adapt and be quicker.
“I’m still learning. I have lots to learn. It just happens I had a good start, but I have to keep going and keep the tempo going.”