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Calder leader Huberdeau has made strong impact

by Mike G. Morreale

Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen recalls the difficulty in fighting the urge to have center Jonathan Huberdeau join the team right out of training camp prior to the 2011-12 season.

It wasn't so much his physical makeup as it was his maturity at the NHL level. After all, in five preseason games in the fall of 2011, Huberdeau had three goals and four points. Not bad for an 18-year-old who was taken with the third pick at the NHL Draft a few months earlier.

"There was serious consideration watching him in training camp," Dineen said. "He made it an extremely hard decision based on his play and the composure he showed playing at the NHL level. I think we made the decision more on his physical makeup than we did his maturity or his ability to play at this level.

"It's a long 82-game season and there's a lot of wear and tear that goes into it. We feel we got a bigger and stronger player [this season] as a result."

When Huberdeau got word he would be returned to the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the 2011-12 season, he took to his Twitter account and said, "I'll be back next year."

Boy, he wasn't kidding.

Huberdeau scored 12 goals in the opening 25 games of the NHL season and continues to defy the odds on a team that has been ravaged by injuries, playing big minutes in a top-six role.

No player from the Panthers has won the Calder Trophy as the League's rookie of the year, but feels the 6-foot-1, 177-pound forward is the odds-on favorite at the three-quarter mark of the season.

"He has great creativity to his game, is a smooth operator in tight spaces,'' Dineen said. "I think he's a very good teammate. He understands the hierarchy of the dressing room while understanding he's an important part of any success we're going to have."

Huberdeau was asked if he's excited to be mentioned in the Calder Trophy race.

"I'm not thinking about it right now," he said. "If it's not helping my team, I don't care about the individual stuff. I'll think about it after the season. If I have it, that's great, but if I don't it'll still be all right, as long as I helped my team win some games. If you score some goals, you're helping your team, so that's what you want to do."

He's doing that too. Huberdeau ranks among the top two rookies in goals, assists, points and shots, and is tops among all first-year players at his position with just under 17 minutes of ice time per game.


Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens -- The 5-foot-9, 178-pound right wing has opened some eyes with his spirited play as the Canadiens look to finish first in the Northeast Division for the first time since 2007-08. Gallagher, selected in the fifth round (No. 147) of the 2010 draft, finished tied for first among rookies in March with five goals and was tied for third with 11 points. He ranks in the top 20 among first-year players in hits and blocked shots, is first in game-winning goals, and ranks in the top five in plus-minus rating while averaging just under 14 minutes of ice time a game.

Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks -- Nicknamed "Man-Child" by his teammates, the 6-foot-1, 202-pound left wing has made the most of a great opportunity alongside center Jonathan Toews and right wing Marian Hossa. Saad really came on in March, producing three goals and 12 assists in 14 games, after producing three goals and four points in the opening six weeks of the season. Playing on one of the League's top lines for the playoff-bound Blackhawks has aided Saad's plus-minus rating. Still, he's proven to be physical and fearless, notching 30-plus hits, 10-plus blocks and 23-plus takeaways in just over 16 minutes of ice time each game.


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