Q&A: Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau on quietly making history in Florida

Watch as Jonathan Huberdeau surprises Tuukka Rask with a beautiful spinning goal for his second of the game and 20th of the season.

TORONTO — Ask the average hockey fan this side of the 49th parallel where Jonathan Huberdeau finished in last year’s scoring race, and their memory may grow foggy.

They may fail to recall the Florida Panthers winger amassed a career-high 92 points last season, that his sum — tied for 12th-most league-wide — sat just two points behind Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner, or a handful above Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares.

They might not remember that he and linemate Aleksander Barkov finished as one of only three elite duos in the league to feature two 90-point scorers, the others being only Edmonton’s Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl pair, and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov-Steven Stamkos twosome (with Brayden Point thrown in there as well, the pivot having tied Huberdeau).

But that’s par for the course for Huberdeau. The Saint-Jerome, Que., native is no stranger to getting lost in the shuffle, having played all seven of his NHL seasons with the Panthers, quietly but steadily improving his scoring pace every season.

“Obviously in Florida, sometimes you don’t get much credit, but that’s part of it. I don’t really care,” Huberdeau says. “I’ve never really thought about that, just playing. We want to do good for the team, it doesn’t matter who thinks about us.”

It’s a situation he and linemate Barkov have both found themselves in at times, with the latter long carrying the mantle as the name often mentioned in conversations of the most underrated player in the game. Now that dynamic’s been upended, with Barkov earning league-wide acclaim courtesy of two straight years among the top five vote-getters for the Selke Trophy, and Huberdeau getting the underrated treatment.

“I think Barky’s well-known right now, I don’t think he’s underrated anymore,” Huberdeau says “I think he’s such a special player, and you know me, I’m kind of playing with him under the radar. And I kind of like that.”

Though just entering his prime, Huberdeau and his career-best 2018-19 effort brought another under-the-radar wrinkle for the 26-year-old — it rocketed him up the all-time scoring list of the young Panthers franchise.

With a pair of points against the Sharks on Sunday, Huberdeau hit 395 on the career, moving him into second all-time in Panthers history. He needs just 24 more — a total that will almost certainly be in the bag by the end of this season — to become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, spurring what’s sure to be a career-long duel with Barkov to hold onto the top spot.

It’s a uniquely odd experience for an NHLer, sitting with the franchise’s all-time lists at your feet as you just enter the prime years of your career, but such is the life of a Panther. Though the club’s seen all-timers like Pavel Bure, Jaromir Jagr and Joe Nieuwendyk touch down in Florida, none have stayed for more than a few seasons. So, odd as it may seem, it’s the young guns who’ve stuck around, like Huberdeau, left to be the custodians of the team’s offensive legacy.

With that milestone on deck, the winger caught up with Sportsnet to reflect on what it’s like to make franchise history before hitting 30, establishing a winning culture in Florida, and how he wants to be remembered by the Panthers faithful when all is said and done.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sportsnet: So, you just took over the No. 2 spot in all-time scoring for the Panthers, and you’re not too far off the franchise lead. What would it mean to break the team’s all-time scoring record?

Jonathan Huberdeau: It means a lot — obviously it’s not a huge history like a team like Montreal and stuff like that, but still, I’m pretty fortunate to be able to play here since the beginning of my career. I went ahead of Stephen Weiss, who I played with, who was such a good player, so I’m really happy that I got the chance to be second.

Obviously, I want to go first, but for now it’s more thinking about the team.

SN: What’s it like for you playing for a young franchise like the Panthers — when you think back to getting drafted, coming over from juniors, could you foresee yourself rewriting this team’s history like you have?

Huberdeau: I never really thought of that — when you get drafted, it goes so fast. I feel like I got drafted yesterday, and now I’m moving up in the history of the team. It’s not everyone that can play on the same team for a long time, and I’m fortunate that I could.

Right now it’s just the beginning, you know. I think there’s a winning culture with the Florida Panthers, and I just want to be at the top of my game, play well and help the team to win.

SN: You’ve seemed to progress every season you’ve been in the league, and raise those numbers year in and year out — what do you think it is that’s allowed you to have that kind of steady progress?

Huberdeau: I think it’s maturity and consistency that were big for me. I think every year you learn a lot from everything, from other players as well. As a young guy obviously you want to do well, but you know, I think I just grew as a player. In the summer I started to get stronger. I gained weight — when I got to the NHL I was probably 170 pounds and now I’m like 200. It makes a big difference when you play and you’re a little stronger, and right now that’s what I’m doing.

I think I’m just getting better every day. That’s what I want to do — when you’re 26, 27, it’s the prime of your career, so you’ve got to take advantage of that.

SN: There was a pretty sharp uptick last year from 69 points to 92, reaching that benchmark of truly elite scoring. What felt different about last season that allowed you to take that big of a step?

Huberdeau: I think just being good every game. Before, I think some games I was maybe not there, I wouldn’t make an impact on the game. But now I just said, you know, I need to be better every game. That’s what I did last year, and the points kept on coming.

But if you get 92 points and you don’t make the playoffs, it’s not worth it. So I don’t care how many points I get, I’ve got to help the team to win and make the playoffs. That’s all that matters to me.

SN: Speaking of that effort to make the playoffs, you guys have continued to improve as a team and to add key names. How does that change your mindset, having more talent come into the room to share that burden of leading the team?

Huberdeau: Yeah, it did [change our mindset]. Being in Florida for seven years, we’ve only made the playoffs once — you play to make the playoffs and to win the Stanley Cup, and I haven’t had the chance to do it. So, this summer they added Coach Q, they added [Sergei] Bobrovsky, [Anton] Stralman, [Noel] Acciari, [Brett] Connolly, a lot of nice pieces. I think the core is the same and we feel good about it, and we’re working together.

During the summer, we were excited to get back and see these new faces, and we’re in a good position right now. We’ve just got to keep climbing, and I think we’re going to have a good chance.

SN: You’ve got a pretty dominant partner on that top line in Aleksander Barkov — you guys have become the type of star duo your coach enjoyed with his last team. How has Aleksander influenced the growth of your game?

Huberdeau: Barky is obviously a great player, a great all-around player. He’s great offensively obviously but he’s even better defensively, so it makes a big difference for us. Playing together, obviously we have special chemistry — we find each other pretty easily on the ice, and that’s what makes us good.

It’s about protecting the puck in the offensive zone, we like to get possession. [Evgenii] Dadonov too, not a lot of people talk about him, but he’s a guy that helps us do our things in the offensive zone, and be creative.

SN: You spoke about not getting the attention that might come for other teams in other markets — do you think that can also be a bit of an advantage, not having to deal with all that noise sometimes?

Huberdeau: Yeah, you can take that as a positive too — you just go out there, do your job, and you don’t have to worry about anything else. That’s what I do every time. I just love the game with a passion, and I don’t try to put pressure on myself, I just like to play and try to be the best player I can.

SN: There’s a lot of talk about the attendance issues and things like that, but you guys obviously haven’t had any trouble attracting talented players to put on a Panthers sweater. What is that experience like playing out in Florida after your early hockey years in Quebec and New Brunswick?

Huberdeau: It’s different — you don’t get recognized as much, but you get used to it. In Montreal, the media, hockey is all they talk about, you know. You go back in the summer and that’s all you talk about. Now in Florida it’s a bit different, but it’s just a great lifestyle around here. And I think that as soon as we bring a winning team, I’m sure there’s going to be more fans at our games, and I think we’re going to fill the rink.

SN: Does that idea of filling the rink motivate you guys to get back to the playoffs and take that next step?

Huberdeau: Yeah that’s our motivation. We want to bring more people and we want to win — it’s fun to win, it’s a lot more fun to come to the rink. I think we’ll bring a winning culture to South Florida.

The Miami Heat, that’s what they did. When they won, when they were good, there were people in the building. I think that’s by winning and being in the playoffs.

SN: The financial side of the game has become such an important part of winning. You guys have an advantage with the contracts you and Aleksander are on [$5.9 million annually for the next few years] and the elite numbers you’re putting up while on that deal. How do you feel about that situation, and the advantage the team has because of your contracts?

Huberdeau: I think right now we’re spending more. This summer we went and got Bobrovsky. That’s the owner’s decision, but I feel like we’ve been spending more right now, I think we’re right around at the cap, and I think we’ve got to take advantage of that with [getting] good players. I feel like now we’ve got a good group of guys, and money’s not our job, we just go out there and play.

SN: It seems pretty certain you and Aleksander will be the top scorers in Panthers history by the end of this season. When all is said and done down the line, how do you want to be remembered by fans in Florida?

Huberdeau: If you don’t win, you don’t get much recognition. You can be first in points and whatever, but I think bringing the Stanley Cup here would be the best thing that could happen to me and to the team and to the organization. So that’s my main goal, to win the Stanley Cup.

Obviously to be first in points is just extra motivation, but I think the main goal is the Stanley Cup. That’s all I want to do in Florida.

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