CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — When pucks need to be collected at the end of practice, Jonathan Huberdeau is right there with Florida Panthers rookies cleaning up.
After winning the Calder Memorial Trophy and ranking second among teammates in scoring during his first season, one would think Huberdeau would take advantage of a stripe earned.
He hasn’t. At least not yet.
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“He’s a veteran on this team now,” defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. “He’s played so well for us and done a lot in his short career. For him to be doing stuff like (picking up pucks), staying levelheaded, just shows the kind of character that he has and what kind of person this team drafted a couple years ago.”
Through 29 games this season, it is Huberdeau’s ethos that has transcended his on-ice performance.
Contributing offensively has not come easy for the winger this year. Opponents are keying in on Huberdeau more often, giving him less time and room to utilize his goal-scoring and playmaking abilities.
It has shown in his numbers: Huberdeau has gone through two separate five-game stretches without a point. Huberdeau has yet to register a multi-point game this season. Last year he had seven.
“I don’t want to put that as an excuse,” Huberdeau said. “If they’re going to be tighter on me, I just want to work harder, get beside them. That’s what I am trying to do. Of course you have more pressure when you win the Calder. I don’t want to put pressure on myself, but I want to go out there and be the best player on the ice.”
Additionally, Huberdeau has had to make adjustments under new coach Peter Horachek, who demands accountability on both sides of the puck.
Horachek’s new system, however, has actually helped Huberdeau’s game. Last season, Huberdeau registered a minus-15 rating. Prior to Florida’s coaching change, he was a minus-5. Since, Huberdeau is a plus-3.
That resonates with Horachek, who says when Huberdeau plays good games, the winger is “going to put points on the board.”
“I think like a lot of players, they get frustrated with themselves,” Horachek said. “They want to score. They want to be contributing to the team. They want to be the guy being the answer every night. If things don’t go in, he obviously gauges himself by his production. He can play a good game and not score.”
Florida’s past three games are indicative of Horachek’s assessment.
Huberdeau snapped a five-game point drought with an assist in the team’s 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. In the team’s next contest, a 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, he ended his six-game goal drought.
It was Huberdeau’s efforts away from the puck that helped his team end a three-game skid with a 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.
The 20-year-old provided the crucial screen on Dylan Olsen’s momentum-changing goal, which put the Panthers ahead 2-1. On Nick Bjugstad’s third-period score, Huberdeau put pressure on netminder Ondrej Pavelec in front, allowing his linemate to successfully convert a wraparound attempt.
“I like scoring, but I want to win the games, too,” Huberdeau said. “It’s not all about personal stuff.”
Huberdeau’s desire to work through the lows and contribute in areas not registered on a scoresheet has earned the winger even more respect from teammates.
“In terms of hockey knowledge, he’s right up at the top,” Gudbranson said. “You tell him something and nine times out of 10, he’s going to go out and be able to produce it for you. He’s got a great work ethic, and I think that’s why he’s going to be such a good player in this league.”
Ending a sophomore jinx is only one of the areas Huberdeau is focused on this season. He has stepped up in the locker room to mentor the team’s rookies. It is a pay-it-forward mentality for Huberdeau, who credited former Panthers winger Kris Versteeg for taking him in and helping him adjust last year.
“His rookie year was so different just because it was a half year,” Bjugstad said. “He’s younger than me, but he’ll show me the ropes.
“When you’re a rookie, you’ve got to be cautious. You’ve got rookie duties, and he’ll let me know. I don’t know if he still considers himself a rookie because he only played half a year. He still picks up pucks and does that kind of stuff. He’s a good guy.”
On the road, Huberdeau rooms with 18-year-old Aleksander Barkov, the youngest player in the league, and has helped the Finn adjust to the NHL lifestyle.
“He was a bit quiet at the beginning, but we’re getting more comfortable with each other,” Huberdeau said. “We’re trying to speak our own language.”
Luckily for the Panthers, both players speak English. Huberdeau’s first language is French, while Barkov is additionally fluent in Russian and Finnish. Despite the vast differences, the duo is beginning to form a bond.
“We’re just starting to talk a lot,” Huberdeau said. “In the beginning it was more quiet. It wasn’t bad, but we’re tying to have more chemistry, you could say.”
For Huberdeau, he’s happy to do anything required of him to help his team win.
“When you lose, it’s all about working, executing,” Huberdeau said. “I want to help stop that. I want to help the team to start winning.”
In Huberdeau’s mind, that means a solid two-way effort, contributing offensively and being a good teammate.