In the first period of Thursday night’s 4-1 Bruins win over the Florida Panthers, the Bruins held a 1-0 lead when Florida’s leading scorer, Jonathan Huberdeau, caught a Bruins turnover and raced in on a breakaway, firing a shot low glove-side that required a flashy effort from Tuukka Rask in order to keep it out of the net.
The play was a hint of the type of game-changer Huberdeau can be because although he did not score on that play, Huberdeau could have singlehandedly changed the complexion of the game if not for an outstanding save by Rask.
Just over halfway into the season, Huberdeau is emerging as the leading candidate for the Calder Trophy. As the third pick of the 2011 NHL Draft behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog, Huberdeau easily could have been forgotten. Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog were both key players for their respective NHL teams during the 2011-12 season, while Huberdeau played another year for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Then there is the matter of hockey markets: Edmonton and Colorado have thriving fanbases while Florida is not exactly a hockey-crazed area.
But Huberdeau is making himself known thanks to his production. He leads all rookies with 12 goals in 28 games and is second among rookies with 17 total points. Among the rest of the NHL, Huberdeau is tied for sixth-most goals overall alongside players like Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal, PA Parenteau and Brad Marchand.
His goal total is even more impressive when placed in the context of his contemporaries; only four other active players have scored 12 goals within their first 25 NHL games.
Who are those four players? Teemu Selanne (scored 18 in his first 25 games), Alexander Ovechkin (15 goals), Evgeni Malkin (15 goals) and Crosby (12 goals). In other words, they are likely four future Hall-of-Famers.
Huberdeau accomplished these totals while playing for a terrible Florida team. The Panthers sit in last place in the Eastern Conference and are third-to-last in the conference in goals scored. Two of the team’s leading offensive threats, Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss, have been out for most of the year with injuries. Huberdeau virtually carries what little there is of the Panthers’ offense.
It would have been understandable if Huberdeau needed a bit of an adjustment period when joining the Panthers this year. For the last few years, Huberdeau has only known life as a player on a highly successful team with a rabid following.
During the lockout, he continued to play for Saint John, a powerhouse in the QMJHL, before joining a loaded Team Canada in the World Junior tournament at the turn of the new year.
Florida is much different than both teams. Huberdeau now has to learn how to compete for a team that likely won’t make the playoffs, and although he is a rookie, he has to serve as a team leader by virtue of his point totals and the amount of injuries the Panthers have sustained.
“Sure you have to step up with a lot of energy,” Huberdeau said. “We don’t have the players that we’re missing, so a lot of guys have to step up, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do now.”
And while Huberdeau, a native of Saint-Jerome, Quebec, may not speak the best English, he clearly has found his way on the ice.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of Huberdeau’s game is his defensive presence. In Thursday night’s game, Huberdeau would frequently lead a rush in the offensive end, then race back to the other end of the ice and create a turnover with a solid hit against the wall or by clearing a puck away from the slot. Huberdeau clearly has offensive talent; if he can compliment that with strong defensive play, he will be a force to be reckoned with in the league for years to come.
“He’s working hard and he’s doing a lot of good things in there,” said defenseman Brian Campbell. “He’s fitting in with our team well. He’s becoming more of a complete player every day. He’s going to do well in this league.”
But, like any good player, Huberdeau is not satisfied, especially when it comes to his missed opportunity on that first-period breakaway in Thursday night’s loss.
“In the first period, I thought if I scored it would be a different game for sure, and I think you can’t miss those chances,” Huberdeau said. “I had two or three other chances in the first period, so I think if I score one, it’s a different game. So yeah, I gotta work on that and I gotta capitalize on those chances.”
After all, while Huberdeau is enjoying a solid start to the season, there are still many more chances he will need to capitalize on if he wants to finish the year holding the Calder Trophy.