This is the latest edition of The THN Hot Seat, a continuing series of THN.com columns in which we focus on one person in each NHL city who’ll be facing much pressure in the 2022-23 season. The nominee may be an NHL team owner, player, or coach. In today’s file, we’re examining the Calgary Flames.
FLAMES HOT SEAT: JONATHAN HUBERDEAU, FORWARD
WHY: When the Flame acquired him in July, Huberdeau immediately faced questions about his long-term future in Calgary. Some presumed he would leave the organization when his contract expired at the end of the 2022-23 season, but the 29-year-old put that speculation to rest last week, signing an eight-year, $84 million contract extension.
That certainly took much of the sting out of Calgary losing star forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk to free agency and the Huberdeau trade respectively, but it doesn’t take any heat off Huberdeau. He generated a career-best 85 assists and 115 points for Florida last season and garnered a notable amount of Hart Trophy votes as the league’s most valuable player while on a bargain-rate $5.9-million annual payday. Yes, he was playing on a more potent offensive team in the Panthers, but in Calgary, he’ll play on the first line and be compared to Gaudreau and Tkachuk not just through the regular season, but through the life of his new contract.
Playing in a Canadian market after spending the entirety of his 10-year NHL career in the peace and anonymity of Florida will be an adjustment for Huberdeau. But let’s not pretend this is some wholly alien transition. Huberdeau’s junior hockey career was spent with the Quebec Major Junior League’s Saint John Sea Dogs, and he thrived in that relatively isolated environment. Calgary is a bigger city with more fans, but Huberdeau understood this before signing that lucrative contract extension. He’s not some naive, dainty-hearted eight-year-old stumbling into the wilderness. He knows what’s up and believes he’s up to the challenge.
Huberdeau will be Calgary’s highest-paid player starting in 2023-24, but his expectations to lead the Flames’ offense will kick in immediately. He’ll skate on the first line and power play unit, and head coach Darryl Sutter will turn to him as a difference-maker late in games. However, he won’t ultimately be judged until the playoffs arrive, and that’s when the pressure on him will ratchet up. Playoff success has mostly eluded Huberdeau thus far; he’s scored only five career playoff goals in 26 games, and more importantly, he’s never played beyond the second round and only made it that far once.
Canadian NHL fans can get touchy at times regarding players’ willingness to live and work north of the American border, which is why it hurt Calgarians so much to see Tkachuk and Gaudreau depart for what they believed to be greener pastures. But winning games is a balm for that problem, and the Flames are still playing in a weak Pacific Division that gives them an easier route to a Conference Final or Stanley Cup Final appearance. That may have factored into Huberdeau’s willingness to stick around. But who’s kidding who – having your salary nearly doubled will make it easier for you to rationalize playing just about anywhere.
Huberdeau has a few weeks before the fishbowl experience kicks in for him in Calgary. But he’s got the motivation to perform well and shove it in the face of Panthers GM Bill Zito for trading him for Tkachuk. And the upside is, if he does play well in his uniform, he’ll have the type of fan support he never could’ve received in Florida. But the clock on him starts ticking immediately.