Jonathan Huberdeau doesn’t lack heart, doesn’t lack give-a-hoot. He certainly doesn’t lack skill.
He isn’t nursing an injury and, despite Tuesday’s third-period benching, is not beefing with his bench boss.
That’s the concerning part for the Calgary Flames. There’s not necessarily an easy explanation for why Huberdeau seems to be a shell of his former self. Even he can’t put his finger on it.
This dude cares. He is determined to be a difference-maker. He wants to be everything that the Flames had in mind when he arrived in that blockbuster trade, which is just to be everything that he was during his stint in the Sunshine State.
A legitimate superstar. An ace playmaker. A guy who is getting double-shifted when the game is on the line, not the exact opposite.
“I don’t think there is anybody who is harder on himself than Johnny,” said Huberdeau’s close pal and longtime teammate MacKenzie Weegar. “I know he wants to be the best player he can be. I think maybe he’s putting a little too much pressure on himself. I just know that he wants to be the player that he once was, and I know he’ll get there.
“I know he’s going through a tough time right now, but these times will make you better. They’ll make you stronger. When that time comes, he just has to excel and take off with it.”
At Tuesday’s second intermission, Huberdeau could have taken off his skates. As the Flames scored three unanswered goals to storm to a comeback victory over the Nashville Predators, he was stuck at the end of the bench. He wasn’t tapped for a single shift over the final 20 minutes.
Huberdeau did his best to fill the rah-rah role, banging his stick on the boards after blocked shots and rising to greet his buddies in the fist-bump line, but it must have been crushing to sit there and watch his team play better without him.
While Flames coach Ryan Huska chalked it up afterward as “an off-night” for the 30-year-old left-winger, Tuesday’s best-seat-in-the-house treatment is a big story because of the big picture. Because the truth is, it’s been a season-and-change of underwhelming impact for this top talent.
After Wednesday’s practice, Huberdeau acknowledged as much.
“If I’d found the solution, I probably wouldn’t be sitting on the bench last night,” he said. “It’s something you work on every day. I want to find a solution to be a good player on this team. I still have to find it but, at the end of the day, it’s about work. You have to put the work in.
“It’s not easy, you know, since I got here obviously, but you want to be positive. Nobody feels sorry for yourself. It’s you. I dug myself a little hole, and I have to get out of it.”
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It’s not just Huberdeau who is searching for answers.
In both hockey-ops meetings and in the coaching offices, How do we get more from Huby? must be the most frequent topic of discussion. He is key to both the now and the future.
This organization has, after all, made a massive investment in No. 10. In a business where every player is measured by his salary-cap hit, he must feel sometimes like he should be wearing 10.5 on the back of his jersey. That is the amount, in millions, that he will be collecting annually through the end of the 2030-31 campaign.
That’s a lot of loot, and a lot of term, for somebody with six points in a dozen dates so far this fall. It’s never ideal when your highest-paid player is also a team-worst minus-12.
Against the Predators, in the two periods that he touched the ice, Huberdeau didn’t register a single shot on net. It marks the third time this season that he failed to even put one into the pads of the opposing masked man.
So what now? Well, first things first, the Flames are headed to the centre of the hockey universe for Friday’s matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs (5 p.m. MT, Sportsnet West/Sportsnet 960 The Fan).
That’s the brightest spotlight on the circuit. All eyes will be on Huberdeau.
“If people weren’t looking at you, maybe you’re not considered a top player in the league,” Huska said after Wednesday’s practice, when Huberdeau was back in his usual slot as Calgary’s first-line left-winger. “It’s something that I would kind of be honoured a little bit and you have to take it the right way and that’s the way I would look at it.
“There’s a reason why there’s some pressure — because he’s a really good player. And we need him to be at his best all the time.”
They need him to be his old self.
Because this isn’t just about 20 minutes on Tuesday. Not for the Flames. Not for Huberdeau.
“I just think he wants to back to where he was once, really badly,” Weegar said. “He’ll get there. I have a lot of faith in that.”
On X: @WesGilbertson
Wes Gilbertson and Danny Austin have been covering the Flames for years and know what makes the team tick. Have questions? They have the answers – or the contacts to track them down. Send your questions to email@example.com