Panthers bet on Jonathan Huberdeau becoming elite winger with six-year extension

Florida signed restricted free agent Jonathan Huberdeau to a six-year, $35.4 million contract, and expectations will be high for the 23-year-old winger.

The Florida Panthers have inked their final restricted free agent, awarding left winger Jonathan Huberdeau a new six-year pact worth $35.4 million – a cap hit of $5.9 million.

That’s the same cap hit as center Aleksander Barkov, the pivot who worked so well with Huberdeau and veteran icon Jaromir Jagr last season. And while we all watch in awe as Jagr continues to terrify opponents well into his forties, Huberdeau and Barkov are the tandem to watch now in Florida.

Huberdeau’s rookie NHL season came during the most recent lockout-shortened year. He won the Calder Trophy over Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher on the strength of 31 points in 48 games in 2012-13, kicking off his pro career in style.

But what I’m really intrigued by are his next three years. The left winger had a sophomore slump, as Huberdeau produced only 28 points in 69 games. He has been trending up since that, however, with his points and points per game climbing steadily. Our 2016-17 Poolbook has Huberdeau slated for 67 points, just behind Barkov (71) on the Panthers’ depth chart. Based on last year’s NHL race, that would make Huberdeau a top-20 scorer.

And that is what he has been on track for since Florida drafted him third overall in 2011. We knew it would take time for Huberdeau to get up to full speed; after all, he was listed as 6-foot-1 and 168 pounds back then. Now, he’s 188 pounds – and no doubt a lot of that is added muscle. The potential was always there and I recall seeing Huberdeau make some dazzling moves at the Memorial Cup in Mississauga during his draft year. A tournament, by the way, that his Saint John Sea Dogs won.

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Now the mission is to become that elite left winger. Expectations will be high for the Panthers (OK, “Atlantic Division high”) and players such as Huberdeau, Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Vince Trocheck need to be the drivers. The future is now.

At 23, Huberdeau is now locked in for six years, which means the Cats bought some unrestricted free agency years from him. If he can continue to improve year over year, he’ll be a force in the NHL sooner than later. And if that Florida core continues to come together, the franchise might even see a return to the Stanley Cup final in the coming years.