Jonathan Huberdeau took the non-traditional path in learning how to skate -- and he paid the price.
"My mom and dad wanted me to learn how to skate before playing hockey," Huberdeau told NHL.com, "so they enrolled me in these speed-skating classes."
Since Huberdeau didn't own a pair of speed skates, he used hockey skates instead. Needless to say, the results were hardly encouraging.
"It was funny," he said. "I always came in last. I would jump out to a lead at the start, but then I'd always look over my shoulder and lose my speed. They'd all catch up and that was it."
Fortunately for Huberdeau, he'd prove himself a worthy candidate for hockey in the eyes of his parents. Today, he's the leading scorer for the No. 1-ranked junior hockey team in the Canadian Hockey League, the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Gerard Gallant told NHL.com. "There are other guys on our team quicker, like (Tomas) Jurco and (Stanislav) Galiev. But when Jonathan has the puck, he's very quick and makes good decisions. He goes East-West, North-South all the time, so I wouldn't say he's the quickest guy from blue line to blue line, but he's among the top three or four, for sure."
Huberdeau is first among nine Sea Dogs on NHL Central Scouting's list of the top draft-eligible North American skaters.
The native of Saint-Jerome, Que., leads the team with 41 goals, 59 assists, 100 points and a plus-58 rating through 64 games this season. His 100 points are not only third in the QMJHL, but the most by a player in franchise history, surpassing the 95 scored by Chris DiDomenico in 2007-08.
All that has done is land him at No. 4 Central Scouting's mid-term rankings, which were released in January.
"I think (being No. 4) surprised me a little bit, but I don't want to be cocky about it," Huberdeau said. "I may be in the top four, but there are a lot of good players after me. I'm going to keep playing the way I've been playing since the beginning of the season, and then we'll see what happens in June."
He's a projected first-round pick for the 2011 Entry Draft, June 24-25 in St. Paul, Minn., along with fellow teammates Nathan Beaulieu (No. 9), Zack Phillips (No. 12) and Jurco (No. 24).
Phillips, Huberdeau's linemate for much of the season, ranks seventh in the QMJHL with 92 points (38 goals).
"His vision on the ice is the best I've seen," Phillips said of his linemate. "He's a winger for me and unbelievable with getting the puck off the boards and up to me at center. We work off each other really well with nice passes and he's rated very high and deserves to be there."
NHL Network analyst Craig Button, a former NHL scout and general manager, has Huberdeau ranked fourth on his draft cheat sheet -- the second-best center on his list, behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League.
At 6-foot-1 1/4 and 170 pounds, Huberdeau has received high praise for his ability to attack the puck, play strong around the net and excel in pressure situations. Gallant rarely thinks twice about putting Huberdeau on the ice in the last minute of a tight game or in a shootout.
"He's a top player and gets better every game he plays ... our problem is you just don't want to overplay him or use him too much," Gallant said. "He's a quality, character kid. He competes both ways, battles for those goals around the net and competes hard in every situation."
NHL Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau, who has specialized in rating players from the QMJHL for 18 years, agrees with Gallant's assessment.
"He's the type of player who can change the outcome of a game suddenly and quickly," Bordeleau told NHL.com. "He's displayed unbelievably quick hands and an ability to set up and score goals. He definitely has NHL hands and playmaking ability."
Scouts have said Huberdeau will need to put on some weight and add some muscle to become an even greater threat and eventual top-line center in the NHL, but that also could be said of every other prospect on the board.
"Once he puts on 10 or 15 pounds, he should be awesome," Bordeleau said. "He's also gritty and does not back down when challenged. As far as I'm concerned, he's as good as the top three guys (on Central Scouting's list) ahead of him (No. 1 Gabriel Landeskog, No. 2 Sean Couturier, No. 3 Nugent-Hopkins). It'll be interesting to see where he finishes up at the final meeting. Jonathan is in his first full year in the league and Couturier is in his third."
Huberdeau does feel stronger in the tough areas this season and admits he doesn't mind taking a hit if it opens a lane for a teammate.
"I have good vision and good skill with my hands ... and I can play both ways," he said. "They can put me on penalty killing and I'll do the job on the power play. If the coach wants me to play defensively, I'll do that, it's not a problem. I think that's my strength."
Highly regarded Montreal Juniors defenseman Xavier Ouellet, No. 39 on Central Scouting's list, has faced Huberdeau twice this season and has come away quite impressed. Huberdeau actually had his first of six multiple-goal games this season in an Oct. 10 game against Montreal.
"He's got unbelievable vision and sees everything on the ice ... he's got good hands, too," Ouellet said. "He's a good playmaker and can score. Overall, he's good everywhere. He's not bad defensively, either."
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