Waking up Tuesday morning, a pair of dynamic duos sit atop the NHL’s annual Art Ross Trophy race. First and second in league scoring are Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers’ elite one-two punch who have posted a combined 34 goals and 95 points in 26 games. And hot on their tails – or at least as close as any other two offensive contributors – are Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. The Boston Bruins’ first-line wingers, third and fourth in league scoring, have netted a combined 36 goals and 75 points in 23 games.
The next set of teammates to appear on the list, however, might not be the ones you expect. Injuries to Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen have kept either from remaining in lockstep with Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon. Auston Matthews is the lone Toronto Maple Leaf among the league’s top-10 scorers, missed time by Mitch Marner playing a part in the shifty scorer’s absence. And others, including the Buffalo Sabres’ Jack Eichel, Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane and New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin are flying solo atop the scoring list.
But lumped in with the group of five 30-point scorers who are fighting for placement among the league’s leaders is Jonathan Huberdeau, and one point behind him is Aleksander Barkov. After Draisaitl and McDavid, and behind Marchand and Pastrnak, the Florida Panthers’ pair are the next-highest scoring set of teammates in the NHL, combining for 17 goals and 59 points in 24 games. And as they continue to keep pace with the league’s top scorers, it’s worth wondering aloud whether the Cats’ top-liners are the most underrated – or the most under-appreciated – duo in the league.
As far as offensive contributions go, it’s not a difficult case to make. Dating back to the beginning of last season, McDavid and Draisaitl remain head-and-shoulders above any other tandem, their 316 combined points nearly 50 more than the combined total of the next-best duo, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, who have combined for 267 points. Next in line are Marchand and Pastrnak, who have scored a combined 256 points. But then comes Barkov and Huberdeau, their 247 combined points more than all but three of the highest-scoring forwards pairs in the league since the 2018-19 campaign began.
What furthers Barkov and Huberdeau’s case, however, is that they’re something of a rarity among those duos. Again, McDavid and Draisaitl have been otherworldly in their ability to stuff the scoresheet, both exceeding 150 points since the start of the 2018-19 season. But there is only one other duo with individual 120-plus point totals: Barkov, who has 125 points, and Huberdeau, whose 122 points put him only narrowly back of his linemate. Others are close, to be sure, with Stamkos and Pastrnak nearest to the 120-point plateau, but following Monday’s action, both lag behind.
Without question, it’s more so Huberdeau’s rise from second-tier scorer to legitimate top-line threat that has vaulted the Panthers’ one-two punch into the top-duo conversation.
For a few seasons now, Barkov has assumed the mantle as the NHL’s most underrated player, but consistent Selke Trophy candidacy, a bit of Hart Trophy consideration and a Lady Byng victory (hey, even if the awarded is sometimes derided as among the league’s least important, it’s something he can put in his trophy case), he’s had his share of recognition. It’s probably true that he’s received enough recognition, in fact, that he can no longer fall into the “most underrated player” category.
Huberdeau, on the other hand, may have had the quietest 90-point season in the NHL last season. Only 11 players finished last season with more points than Huberdeau, and he’s continued that this campaign with his 10 goals and 30 points through 24 games. Right here might be where it’s important to note that since the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign, Huberdeau is one of 36 players with at least 40 goals and only seven players, one of which is Barkov, have exceeded Huberdeau’s 122 points.
Helping the duo produce this season, and in turn helped them rise into the upper-echelon of the league’s tandems, is Panthers coach Joel Quenneville’s deployment of his two offensive studs. After a pair of seasons in which Huberdeau’s offensive zone start percentage at 5-on-5 was below 46 percent, he’s up more than 20 percent to 67.9 percent through the first 24 games of the campaign. Barkov, heralded as one of the better two-way players in the game, has likewise seen a significant increase. His 68.9 offensive zone start percentage at five-a-side is more than 26 percent clear of last season’s 42.4 percent mark at season’s end.
The deeper you dig, too, there’s supporting evidence to herald Barkov and Huberdeau as one of the very best pairs in the league. In nearly 1,000 minutes skated alongside one another at five-a-side over the past two seasons, the Panthers linemates – often with Evgenii Dadonov rounding out the trio – have a 52.1 Corsi percentage, 54.3 goals percentage and 51.1 expected goals percentage.
So, where do Barkov and Huberdeau ultimately rank among the league’s best duos? Certainly not at the very top, because few influence their respective team’s results quite like the Oilers’ McDavid and Draisaitl. But as Barkov and Huberdeau continue to assert themselves on a Florida outfit that is holding down a playoff position in the Atlantic Division, it’s safe to say that it’s becoming a case of as go the Panthers’ pair, so go the Panthers.
And when they’re going like this, that’s not a bad thing.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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