When Jonathan Huberdeau accepted his Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in June, the Florida Panthers center was recovering from hip surgery he had May 14 and was unsure if he would be able to start the 2013-14 season on time.
After several months of rehabilitation and training, Huberdeau said he is healthy, stronger and ready for his second season.
"I'm really excited," Huberdeau told NHL.com Thursday during the Player Media Tour in Manhattan. "It's been quite a while since I've played, so I'm excited to start camp and get ready."
The hard part about making a great first impression is that people often demand better for an encore. The pressure to perform at an increasingly high level can force someone to change his habits or style, and, in the process, lose what made him great in the first place.
According to Huberdeau, that will not be the case for him this season.
"What I did for my rookie season, I'm going to do exactly the same this season," the 20-year-old said. "I'll just try to be better at what I do."
Huberdeau played all 48 games for the Panthers and finished tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead with 14 goals and 31 points (Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers). Huberdeau said he understands that the Panthers are looking for him to improve on those numbers in order to help them get back on track.
The 2012-13 season got off to a bright start for Huberdeau, the Panthers' first-round pick (No. 3) at the 2011 NHL Draft. On his first shot in his first NHL game, Huberdeau scored a goal; he went on to be named first star in Florida's 5-1 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"Can't ask for a better start than that," Huberdeau said.
As the season progressed, things began to fall apart in South Florida. A veteran lineup was devastated by a string of injuries that forced the Panthers to place several young players into crucial roles. The Panthers ended the season with the League's worst record (15-27-6), and Huberdeau was left to reconcile his individual success with the team's 30th-place finish.
"It was a hard season," he said. "As a guy that comes into the League, you want to play well for yourself and be a good player for your team. The results were definitely not what we were expecting. It was tough, but I think we pulled through that. We had some good moments, we had some bad moments, and I think we've grown as a team, and now we're ready to have a better season."
The Panthers are in the new Atlantic Division, which includes five teams that reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season (Detroit, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto). Huberdeau will be facing a full 82-game schedule, including games against Western Conference teams, for the first time.
The native of Saint-Jerome, Quebec, said he and the Panthers are up for the challenge.
"The division is going to be competitive, it's going to be a hard one, but I feel like if we come together as a team, things will be good," Huberdeau said. "And since others don't have as high expectations of us as some of the other teams, and we're going to be young, I think we really can have a good year."
If the Panthers wish to return to the form that allowed them to win the Southeast Division title in 2012, they will have to do so without the longtime face of the franchise; former captain Stephen Weiss signed with the Detroit Red Wings this summer, leaving a major hole, not only on the Panthers' first line but in their locker room.
The Panthers have plenty of veteran leadership on their roster, but the confidence Huberdeau gained from his experience last season might spill over into the dressing room. However, he admits he is not quite ready to ask for the "C" on his jersey.
"I'm going to try to be more of a leader this year, but I've only played half a season, so I won't be talking too much," Huberdeau said. "I'll stay calm and know my place, but I'm going to talk a little bit too. When you have only one season under your belt, you want to be a little bit more vocal, but you're definitely not going to be the guy who says everything in the locker room."
Huberdeau is very much aware of the fact that, despite the awards and recognition, he has plenty of room for improvement. He added muscle mass during offseason workouts (which also improved his skating) and made efforts to improve his play in the defensive zone. He has expressed interest in working on killing penalties, which he did frequently in the junior ranks.
Whereas some young players might buckle under the added weight of expectations, Huberdeau said he is confident he'll be able to meet them all.
"I think my team knows what I can do," he said. "I'm just going to go out there and play my game. I'm not going to tell myself, 'Oh, I have to do this'. If things don't work out, I'm not going to get too frustrated. I'll try to take it easy on myself and work on helping the team come together and have a great year."
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