Very quietly, in suburban Florida, NHL star Jonathan Huberdeau is having one hell of a season. The Panthers winger leads his flourishing team in assists (33) and points (46), and he’s fourth overall in the Art Ross Trophy race, behind superstars Alex Ovechkin (51), Connor McDavid (53) and Leon Draisaitl (53). Huberdeau is on pace to break his career records for assists (62) and points (92), both of which were set in the 2018-19 campaign.
He's now 28 and in his prime, and because he’s in a non-hockey market, media and fans don't appreciate him enough. Nevertheless, given that his salary is relatively low at $5.9 million per year, he's going to be in line for a huge raise when he becomes a UFA at the end of next season.
You’d presume he’s almost set for doubling his pay, but considering that teammate and Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov is going to start an eight-year, $80-million contract extension next season, and that star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky also earns $10 million per year, you’d expect Huberdeau to not breach that amount, and sign a similar extension that will take him near the end of his career. That would put Florida’s investment in their three top players to $30 million, but that’s pretty much the cost of doing business when you’re a team that’s a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. And the Panthers most definitely are a frontrunner to win what would be the first championship in franchise history.
In this, his ninth NHL season, Huberdeau looks extremely confident at both ends of the ice. And he’s part of the league’s second-best offense – averaging 3.89 goals-for per game, second only to the high-octane Colorado Avalanche (4.32 goals-for). Huberdeau doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting for the Panthers, which takes the pressure off of him. And that sense of relaxation shows on the scoresheet for him: in 21 games played since Nov. 13, Huberdeau generated 10 goals and 33 points. He’s been held pointless in only three of those 21 games. In two of those games, he recorded four assists and five points.
But it isn’t just his offense that make Huberdeau such a compelling figure. He would’ve been a sure-thing for Team Canada if the NHL had gone to the Olympics this year because he’s low-maintenance, very versatile and high-reward – everything you’d want in a superstar. Panthers teammate Aaron Ekblad has advocated for Huberdeau as a bona fide Hart Trophy candidate as the league’s most valuable player, and it’s hard to argue with him. He has been as steady as anyone, and if he were taken off Florida’s roster tomorrow, there would be an immediate and negative effect.
The Panthers aren’t a perfect squad – their road record of 5-4-5 is the worst mark of any team currently sitting in a playoff position – but they’re a beast at home, where their 18-3-0 mark gives them at least four more wins than any other team in the league. And Huberdeau has been central in taking them to the top of the Atlantic Division, where they’re currently tied with the back-to-back defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning with 51 standings points. Florida’s overall win percentage of .729 is second only to the Carolina Hurricanes (.758) this year.
As he continues dominating the regular season, the final frontier for Huberdeau is playoff success. He’s appeared in just three Cup tournaments and averaged one point-per-game in 16 playoff GP (12 assists and 16 points), but his Panthers have won only five games in those three post-seasons. Yet something feels different about him this year. He realizes a competitive window can be closed before you realize it, and he’s playing with the urgency of someone who knows he has to take the next step, and take it soon.
Huberdeau may not be on your TV every night, but you’d best believe he’s on the radar of every opponent the Panthers face. And yet, despite being a constant target, Huberdeau is playing the best hockey of his life. That’s the sign of a serious threat. And though it might be coming out of the quiet swamps of Florida, it’s still coming. Best of luck to any forward, defenseman or goalie unfortunate enough to be in his way.