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Huberdeau tries to diversify his game with more shots, goals for Panthers

'You'd like him to be more selfish,' GM says of forward who scored 30 times last season

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

Dale Tallon wants to yell sometimes. Sometimes he gives in.

"Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" 

In that, the general manager of the Florida Panthers is like legions of NHL fans, exhorting their guy to put the puck on the net more often, to test opposing goalies, to let it fly. Unlike those fans, Tallon can head down to the ice or the dressing room and actually talk to his top line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov. 

"I'll give it to them," Tallon said. "I have good relationships with them all. I'm not afraid to voice my opinion, obviously, but I think they respect my opinion. They understand some nights they have to be a little more selfish and shoot more. It's what's best for the team. It's not about getting fancy and making the perfect play. There aren't many perfect plays in our game."

Over the past couple of seasons, the Panthers' two top scorers, Barkov and Huberdeau, have been listening, with both their shot totals and goal totals increasing. And that has been especially true of Huberdeau, the 26-year-old wing who raced out to nine goals this season with a stretch of nine in nine games between Oct. 14 and Nov. 2, culminating in a two-goal, eight-shot night against the Detroit Red Wings. 

"I came in with the mindset that every game I want to do something to help our team," said Huberdeau, who leads the Panthers with 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) in 20 games. "Obviously, our line we want to play in the offensive zone as much as possible. We usually get the matchup, play against the other top line, so if we get the puck, we're going to have more chance to win -- obviously I'm trying to shoot a little bit more. Playing with [Barkov] makes it easy."

Well, sort of.

Because much of the time when Huberdeau looked across the ice at Barkov, his immediate thought was to pass. Barkov, after all, scored an NHL career-high 35 goals last season, a total that tied him for 21st in the NHL. 

But Huberdeau had 30 himself last season, also an NHL career high, also born of a desire to shoot more, to trust himself, to stop only making plays for those around him and start making plays for himself. 

"When I see [Barkov] on the other side, I'm like, ah, I've got to pass to him," Huberdeau said. "But sometimes it's not the best idea. I think it's best to pick and choose and I feel that if you add that [dimension] to your game, the goalie is not going to know if you're going to shoot or pass, the defensemen too, so I think they've got to respect you more on the shot. 

"That's what I'm trying to do, just get more shots on net and get more quality chances and it's going to open up my play."

So far, it has.

Video: DET@FLA: Yandle sets up Huberdeau's second goal

Though his torrid pace has slowed -- Huberdeau has gone without a goal in his past six games, though he does have nine assists in that span -- it's notable that he has come in with a renewed focus on stepping outside his comfort zone. It's something that Tallon saw throughout the team after this summer's remake, when the Panthers hired Joel Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, as coach, and signed goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract on July 1. 

It was a push. 

"Every year he's gotten a little bit better," Tallon said of Huberdeau who was selected by the Panthers with the No. 3 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. "This year he seems to be more driven and has more trust in his body and his feet."

Still, there is more progress that can be made. 

"You'd like him to be more selfish, but that's not his primary thing," Tallon said. "He and Barkov are pass-first guys. Dadonov is a passer as well, so trying to get any of them to shoot is really what you'd like to do, but they like to work it down low and have the perfect shot. They do that a lot. They also pass up a lot of scoring opportunities because they're not selfish."

While Tallon said it might be more optimal to have a pure scorer on that line -- he mentioned Owen Tippett, the right wing taken No. 10 in the 2017 NHL Draft, who is playing for Springfield of the American Hockey League -- but for now, it's on the current trio to make it work.

Both Huberdeau and Barkov topped 200 shots for the first time in 2017-2018, with Huberdeau taking 204 (2.49 per game). He had 226 last season (2.76 per game). And while he is off the latter pace so far this season with 49 shots in 20 games (2.45 per game), it's clear that he wants to continue to improve in that area.

"He works hard for it," Barkov said. "He shoots pucks. He knows where to shoot the puck. He's a really smart player, like one of the smartest in the League, and he knows where to put the puck and in which situations he needs to shoot, and in which situations he maybe [should] hold onto the puck a little more and look for a better play."

So, yes, he's trying.

"I think now I know I can pass, so when I have the chance to shoot, I'll try to shoot and even if he was open, I'm going to say, look, I tried to shoot for once," Huberdeau said. "It's tough to pick the right play every time, but obviously I've got to work on my shot a little more, get a better shot and can add that to my game."

It's not easy, as Tallon pointed out. Not when Huberdeau has been playing one way his whole career, his whole life. He must adjust his instincts and his thought process. But he's willing to work on it. Because, in the end, he wants to be better. He wants the Panthers to be better. And those go hand-in-hand.

"I think it's been working so far, but I think to take the next step you've just got to be more of a threat on the ice," Huberdeau said. "That's what I want to do."

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