When Jonathan Huberdeau drives around South Florida in his Corvette Z06, he’s practically anonymous.
As he passes Florida Panthers billboards on the way to work, Huberdeau usually finds himself looking up at another teammate’s face. When he pulls up to the BB&T Center, a giant mural of Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad stares back.
Not that Huberdeau longs for attention. “I don’t mind them being everywhere,” he said. “People who know hockey know I work hard. I want to win every night, and that’s all that matters to me.”
Those who have followed Huberdeau’s career are aware of the left winger’s talent. Drafted third overall in 2011 and the winner of the Calder Trophy two years later, Huberdeau has rewritten his personal record book nearly every season.
Since suffering an Achilles’ injury in 2016-17 that limited him to just 31 games, Huberdeau has yet to miss one. In that stretch, the Quebec native’s rise has been meteoric, with a 69-point effort in 2017-18 followed by 92 points last season.
Huberdeau’s 62 assists set a new single-season record for the Panthers, and he reached the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his career. Not that he cares. “You can’t be excited about 92 points when we didn’t make the playoffs,” Huberdeau said. “Yes, it’s fun personally, but I’d rather have 70 and make the playoffs.”
Just once has Huberdeau seen the post-season – a first-round exit against the New York Islanders in 2016. When Florida was in the midst of a seven-game skid last January, the playoffs slipping away yet again, he expressed his frustration to French-language media. “It’s been seven years that I’m here and I did the (playoffs) once. I’m tired,” he told reporters in Montreal.
It could have been interpreted as a sign he wanted out of Florida, and Panthers GM Dale Tallon has not often denied players who have made such requests, but the thought never crossed Huberdeau’s mind. He says he is deeply bonded to the team. “I love Florida,” he said. “I feel at home when I am there. I just want to play there as much as I can, and hopefully if I can play my whole career there, it would be the best thing ever. To win the Stanley Cup there would be unbelievable.”
The Panthers have rewarded his faith by building a contender. Florida spent large sums this summer in the hopes of finally making the post-season an annual affair. The Panthers added three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville, two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky and filled ancillary needs by signing defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari. The Cats are also well-stocked with top prospects such as Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett. “At some point, you’ve got to stick with it,” Huberdeau said. “You want to make the playoffs, and right now it’s the best chance for me. We have the right tools. You’ve got to take advantage of that. Now it’s time to play in the playoffs every year and have good years for years to come.”
Huberdeau doesn’t expect much to change in his top-line and power-play duties. Having already shown chemistry with top centers Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, Huberdeau gives the Panthers flexibility among their top six. Quenneville told Huberdeau in off-season conversations that he sees the winger as a leader on the team. “(Quenneville) wants us to know that if we play good, we’re going to get points, but we’re going to be winning,” Huberdeau said. “That’s what he wants, and that’s all that matters.”
Entering his eighth NHL campaign, Huberdeau is the longest-tenured active Panther. Among pro athletes in South Florida, only the Miami Heat’s Udonis Haslem and the Miami Dolphins’ John Denney and Reshad Jones have been with their respective teams longer. Huberdeau, though, is arguably the biggest star among them.
His no-movement clause kicks in this season, keeping him in Sunrise for at least the next three campaigns. During that stretch, he will likely refresh Florida’s record book. He needs 16 assists to pass Stephen Weiss’ all-time mark of 249 and 61 points to better Olli Jokinen’s record of 419. Just two weeks into the season, Huberdeau should move into the top 10 on the team’s games-played list.
Huberdeau is more focused on bringing the Panthers to “another level” than tracking those numbers. But he did admit he would be proud of the accomplishments and maybe even welcoming of the attention – even if it’s brief.
“Not every player has the chance to play with one team,” Huberdeau said. “I’m fortunate to still be with the Panthers. I know that. But I’m pretty sure ‘Barky’ is going to pass me at some point.”