Considering how infrequently NHL All-Star Games actually happen,* it would be foolish to judge how great a player is by being named to a roster. On the other hand, such designations sometimes give us a chance to step back and appreciate a player. So now seems like a convenient time to appreciate Florida Panthers All-Star Jonathan Huberdeau.
(Just, uh, don’t get too excited appreciating Huberdeau and the Panthers. Ahem.)
This post aims to capture some of what makes Huberdeau so great. To spice things up, let’s also sprinkle in some speculation as to why he maybe doesn’t get the hype he likely deserves.
* – Between lockouts, COVID interruptions, and even Olympic participation every now and then …
Huberdeau (and Barkov): Not just a big fish in a small (but growing) pond
With some rising stars, you need to dig a little deeper to see someone building up a case. That often goes with defensive-minded players. (Sean Couturier, for instance, gathered steam before putting up the type of numbers that draw mainstream attention.)
In the case of Jonathan Huberdeau, you usually just need to casually glance at the NHL’s list of scoring leaders.
This season, Huberdeau ranks fifth in the NHL with 47 points in 36 games. Currently, Huberdeau stands ahead of Steven Stamkos (45), Brad Marchand (41), Mikko Rantanen (40), and Auston Matthews (38).
Impressively, Huberdeau’s high-scoring dominance goes back further. Since 2017-18, Huberdeau generated 347 points (113 goals, 234 assists) in 324 games. That’s the seventh-most of any NHL player, ranking just behind Artemi Panarin (358 points) and ahead of Alex Ovechkin (337) and David Pastrnak (334).
(Interestingly, Huberdeau and Barkov both averaged 1.07 points per game during that span.)
Simply put, when you draw up a list of the NHL’s best playmakers, Huberdeau must be on it.
The obvious and less obvious reasons why Huberdeau lacks some mainstream buzz
So, why doesn’t his name rattle off more tongues when people discuss the NHL’s elite?
The first set of answers revolve around the obvious.
Since long before Huberdeau joined up, the Panthers have been a black hole of an NHL franchise. They’ve rarely made the playoffs since the fluke run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. Almost unthinkably, that lucky run also marks the last time the Panthers won a playoff series.
Combine that lack of success with a general irrelevance in maybe not the most passionate hockey market, and it’s easy to understand why Huberdeau slips under the radar.
Allow me to posit one supplemental theory: Huberdeau also plays a style that doesn’t generate as many passionate endorsements from an analytics perspective.
This isn’t to say that “fancy stats” frown upon Huberdeau. Yet, as a pass-heavy forward whose defense can be hit-or-miss, he’s not going to get that Selke-like nudge. Consider his player card from Evolving Hockey, which parallels looks from places like The Athletic.
To be clear: none of this discounts Huberdeau’s All-Star status. Yet, on the scale of true elite players, he hasn’t had the mainstream team success to boost his name, and his style falls short of indie darling.
Anecdotally speaking, sometimes truly elite passers tend to look worse by certain metrics. Patrick Kane‘s prime years come to mind, so it’s interesting to see a semi-recent comparison to Huberdeau.
Since 2017, Huberdeau has been most similar to James Neal and Patrick Kane's prime years. https://t.co/XmCcjx6XC7 pic.twitter.com/noUEMzk5eC
— Evolving-Hockey (@EvolvingHockey) March 14, 2020
Two big reasons why Huberdeau may get more mainstream attention soon
Don’t let all the Kodak Black flak distract from the fact that the Florida Panthers are a rising force in the NHL.
In a way, Aleksander Barkov missing some time with injuries allowed other Panthers — even beyond Huberdeau — to shine.
While Huberdeau comfortably leads the Panthers in scoring at 47 points, others impress. Aaron Ekblad is dangerously close to a point per game (32 in 35) as a defenseman. Sam Reinhart is quietly affirming himself as a gem, while Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe seem like they could be for real.
Now, the Panthers face some of the thoughts that must rattle around the heads of their division rivals in Toronto, even if the pressure is much lower. They can have a great season, play well in the playoffs, and simply lose in the first round to a stout Atlantic opponent like the Maple Leafs or Lightning.
Yet, even with that risk, the Panthers figure to play higher profile games than ever, and those opportunities should boost awareness of Huberdeau.
[Check out the Panthers and their frequently strong Power Rankings showings]
But mainstream fans also dream of their team stealing great players in free agency. That’s where Huberdeau could jump another level.
Right now, Huberdeau ranks as one of the NHL’s best bargains at a $5.9 million cap hit. However, much like Nathan MacKinnon, that deal expires after the 2022-23 season.
Sure, the Panthers could kill the fun and sign Huberdeau to an extension as early as this coming summer. Not long ago, they did just that with Aleksander Barkov. Still, Huberdeau (28) is older than Barkov (26), and if the star left winger understandably wants to cash in, that could require a very risky contract.
Maybe the Panthers would crunch the numbers and believe that it wouldn’t be feasible to build a team with Barkov, Huberdeau, and Sergei Bobrovsky costing around $30M?
If Huberdeau even flirted with a free agent run, it could be spicy. And maybe it would give him that extra boost he deserves into become a household (for hockey) name.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.