How Jonathan Huberdeau evolved into an elite forward

by
theScore

In the second period of Tuesday's 5-4 victory over the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau gave fans a glimpse of what he does best - and showed off a new wrinkle that has helped transform him into one of the game's most dangerous forwards:

First, the familiar: After corralling an arcing pass near center ice and gaining the zone as the lead on a 3-on-2, Huberdeau flicked a backhand feed into no-man's land above the slot - and right onto the stick of an in-stride Michael Matheson, who wound up with a whole lot of real estate to work with.

In the past, Huberdeau would have deferred at this point - letting his linemates do the dirty work while he collects a secondary assist. But not this time. Huberdeau instead parked himself at the right edge of the net, collected a loose puck in front of Henrik Lundqvist, and flipped the puck past the prone Rangers netminder on his third try to give Florida a 4-1 lead.

It was a superstar rush from start to finish. And it was the perfect snapshot of a new and improved Huberdeau - a player who is finally fulfilling the promise he showed when the Panthers made him the third overall pick in 2011.

"It's amazing how effortless everything looks for him out there," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said prior to Tuesday's win. "He's always been that way, and I think he's getting better and better.

"He makes the game look easy. He's solidified now as a top one-two forward on our team, and in the league when it comes to each team. He's established himself as a scoring threat all over the ice. He's a great passer, and all those things come into play."

Getting to this point was supposed to come more easily to the Saint-Jerome, Quebec native, who enters Thursday with eight goals and 17 assists in 24 games. His profile exploded when he took home Memorial Cup MVP honors as a 17-year-old while leading the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to the 2011 Canadian junior title.

But after winning the Calder Trophy with 32 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Huberdeau hit a wall with just nine goals and 19 assists in 69 games the following year - and all of a sudden, the electrifying forward found himself facing major confidence issues.

"To get into the league, it's the toughest league to play in, and you're there at 19 or 20 years old in your second, third year, and things aren't going your way, how do you get through that?" Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said.

Huberdeau rededicated himself to the things that worked for him in junior, and followed up his worst season with back-to-back 50-point campaigns. But before he had the opportunity to break out further, he suffered a torn left Achilles tendon in the Panthers' final 2016-17 preseason game. He subsequently underwent surgery and was out until February that season.

To his credit, Huberdeau returned with vigor, recording 26 points in 31 games despite playing at less than 100 percent. And having shown flashes of what he was truly capable of, Huberdeau worked harder than ever this past offseason to make sure he was completely healthy going into the season.

"I wanted to work on getting my strength back," Huberdeau told theScore. "With the Achilles injury, my left leg was a little weaker. The summer was huge for me to get stronger and feel good for the season."

It would have been easy for Huberdeau to simply fall back on what made him a household name as a teenager - silky soft hands that delivered the puck exactly where he wanted it to go. But both he and head coach Bob Boughner wanted more, particularly at the other end of the ice.

"He wants me to be a good player defensively and offensively, as well," Huberdeau said. "I try to be a two-way player, and I think that's what I've been doing. For him, it's just about playing hard every shift on the ice."

Boughner has rewarded Huberdeau's dedication the best way a coach can - by keeping him on the ice as much as possible. Huberdeau entered Thursday ranked 23rd among forwards at just under 20 minutes of ice time per game - nearly two minutes higher than his previous career best.

"He's a guy that works hard every day, and he's just got so much skill, and he's so good in tight with the puck," Boughner said. "We ask a lot of him, and we've got to make sure that he's playing the right way as well: get the pucks deep, make your plays when you have a chance and you have numbers, but if not, he's got to be disciplined like everybody else and put the pucks behind. That's something we've been working with him on and he's been better at."

But any elite forward will tell you that he can't do it alone. And in that regard, Huberdeau considers himself blessed to be on a line with fellow high draft pick Aleksander Barkov; he, too, is on his way to a career season with 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) through 24 games.

"We've been playing together for two, three years," Huberdeau said. "You just find chemistry. I know where he's going to be, and he knows where I'm going to be. He's such a good player, and he's really good defensively, so that helps for us getting the puck back. I'm just fortunate to play with a guy like him."

Barkov says the feeling is mutual.

"We don't really understand each other when we speak, but on the ice, we have the chemistry," Barkov said. "He's a highly skilled player and I love to play with those guys. He's the best guy I've ever played with, and it's fun to play with him. This season, we haven't been our best yet, but it's coming."

Boughner raved about the pairing prior to Tuesday's game.

"You could see the little plays they make in tight, and the little give-and-gos around the net, with the experience there," he said. "They sort of know where each other's gonna be, especially when they use the back of the net. They're real good at finding each other.

"His chemistry with Barkov is pretty obvious out there, and when they're on, they're a pretty scary line. They're not going to score every night, but they're going to be an offensive threat and spend a lot of time in zone."

Huberdeau emerged as a legitimate scoring threat in junior, but it was never part of his game in the NHL until this season. Huberdeau's eight goals put him on pace to top the career-best 20 he potted in 76 games in 2015-16 - but he isn't looking to become the South Florida version of Alex Ovechkin.

"I know a lot of people say 'You've got to shoot a little bit more,' and I've been shooting a little bit more this year," he said. "But it's not in my head that I have to shoot every puck. I try to do the right play every time. If it's shooting, it's shooting. But I don't tell myself I have to shoot at every opportunity."

Shooting isn't the only way you can score - and nobody is more aware of that than Huberdeau, who has become a tip-in master. His 13 tips rank him third in the NHL, and his four tip-in goals put him behind only Pittsburgh Penguins mega-star Sidney Crosby and New York Islanders forward Anders Lee.

Huberdeau admits it's something he has prioritized this season.

"That was one of the things I wanted to work on, and that's what I've been doing," Huberdeau said. "I'm more in front of the net on the power play this year, too. I've had some tips this year, but you have to be at the right place at the right moment."

Tallon, who drafted Huberdeau six years ago, is proud of how the 24-year-old has taken on more of a leadership role this season.

"He's maturing and becoming a man in front of our eyes," Tallon said. "These kids start at 18, 19 years old, and it takes time. It's just a matter of experience and understanding, being more professional in your approach and attitude, and becoming a man."

Yet, as well-rounded as Huberdeau has become, he doesn't believe he's reached his peak. Though, he hopes he's close.

"As a player, you always want to get better," he said. "And I still need to get better; I want to have a healthy year, get stronger. Sometimes injuries slow you down, but from 24 to 27, 28, you get to your peak. Hopefully I'll get there."

(Jesse Spector contributed to this feature.)

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)