|Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau celebrates a goal (Getty Images)
Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau began the season with a bang, scoring his first NHL goal on his first shift and his first shot while also picking up two assists in the Panthers 5-1 victory over the Hurricanes back on Jan. 19.
On Monday, he moved one step closer to capping off a great freshman campaign as he was named one of three finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy given to the NHL's top rookie.
Huberdeau, along with Montreal's Brendan Gallagher and Chicago's Brandon Saad will find out the winner along with the rest of the hockey universe during the Stanley Cup Final in June. The trio were the highest vote-getters based on ballots from the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.
"Yeah it would be nice," said Huberdeau following Florida's last game of the season in which he picked up three assists in a 5-3 victory over Tampa Bay to push his point total to 31, tied for most among rookie leaders. "For sure you would like to get it. I'll wait for it and we'll see what's going to happen. You really can't do anything."
The 19-year old was one of Florida's best players during the 2013 season, finishing second on the team in points behind Tomas Fleischmann's 35. What made that total all the more impressive was that he found himself playing against top competition more times than not.
"I know he's a guy that doesn't matter who we're playing, he seems to be matched up against the other team's top pairing and that's a tough thing," said head coach Kevin Dineen prior to Florida's home finale against the Leafs. "He's a young kid and he's had a great first showing so I think he'll certainly get strong consideration for the Calder."
Huberdeau came in and, besides that first game, was as consistent as one could expect. After posting four points in his first seven games, the Saint-Jerome, QC native recorded six goals and nine points in 13 games on his way to being named the NHL Rookie of the Month for February. He was equally as impressive in March where he started setting up his teammates more in collecting seven of his 12 points in 16 games through the assist category. He finished April with six points (five assists) in 12 games.
"This kid is a special player," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon following the Panthers locker clean out day last week. "He's everything that we expected him to be and more. He was terrific."
Whether it was dazzling on his two penalty shot goals against Ilya Bryzgalov of the Flyers (a Panthers rookie for the only skater to record two penalty shot goals in one season) or his setting up of teammates or going hard to the net to jam home a rebound, Huberdeau quickly became a fan favorite.
"Like I said before. I didn't really think about it like how many points I was going to have but it's nice to be tied for the leading scorer of the rookies," said Huberdeau. "But it's not something I was really thinking about but it's nice by the end that I have that in my pocket."
"He's done a great job. Physically he's matured as well as a hockey player and his hockey sense," said Dineen. "I think his understanding of how the game has to be played on both sides of the puck has shown great steps. He's a special kid. He's sincere more than anything. He comes to the rink. He looks to get better every day and he had a good first campaign.
"He's pretty dynamic when he gets a puck on his stick," said Dineen. "I think those are the things that aren't taught."
The point totals aside, Huberdeau has fit into the Panthers dressing room and hasn't rested on his high draft selection (3rd overall in the 2011 NHL Draft). Of course, it would be a total surprise if he did as he is certainly one of the most humble players around.
"He's a sponge when it comes to trying to get better as a player," said Dineen. "You throw around words like character a lot but we feel we have got a good kid here who has a great upside."
"He's a great kid and the way he handled himself on and off the ice was first class," said Tallon. "He should really be proud of himself."
And what's even more exciting for the staff, players and the fans is Huberdeau's future. To think, he played almost 100 games during the 2012-13 season as a teenager, suiting up for Team Canada in warm-up games prior to and the World Junior Championships in-between stints with the Saint John Sea Dogs (37 games) before even making his NHL debut in mid-January. He didn't miss a game and was one of four Panthers players to play in all 48 games.
"I didn't have any expectations. I didn't know what was going to happen," said Huberdeau when asked about his goals coming into the season. "It happened so quick. I was in Junior and the next day I was here and so it happened quick. I didn't have any goals (but) I'm proud of what I did."
"For sure. He played around a 100 games this season so I think it was getting a little tired around the end but I can't wait to see him next year," said Fleischmann following the last game of the season in which two of Huberdeau's three helpers set up Fleischmann. "He's going to be a really good forward for us."