SUNRISE, Fla. - After setting new career marks in goals (20) and points (59) in 76 games during a breakout season in 2015-16, Jonathan Huberdeau's highly anticipated follow-up campaign suffered an unfortunate setback before it could even get started.
Huberdeau, 24, sustained a lower-body injury against the New Jersey Devils during the Florida Panthers preseason finale at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. on Oct. 8 - an injury that kept him out of the lineup until the 52nd game of the season.
"There were some days that were tough and some days that were better," Huberdeau said after cleaning out his locker at the BB&T Center in April. "With that kind of injury, some days you wake up, feel great and come to the rink. I had some setbacks. It was a tough time, seeing the guys play and not having a chance to go on the road with them."
"It was tough, but I always believed that I was coming back. I wasn't sure when, though. It happened quickly. I came back and nobody knew I was going to come back; three days before I was feeling good so I winded up playing. They wanted me to wait until after the break, but I was too anxious to come back."
With the Panthers still very much in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, Huberdeau made his season debut on Feb. 3 against Anaheim, scoring the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the Ducks in Sunrise.
"When you miss like four months of playing, your first goal, it's always special, and that's what it was tonight," Huberdeau said after the game.
From there, Huberdeau continued to show little to no signs of ill effects from his injury, as the former Calder Trophy winner went on to piece together by far one the most impressive - albeit brief - offensive seasons of his young, promising career, finishing with 26 points (10-16-26) in 31 games.
Still, Huberdeau believes he could have been even better.
"I wanted to be effective out there when I came back," said Huberdeau, who signed a six-year extension with the Panthers in September. "It's been pretty good. You always want better and to help the team a little bit more, but overall it was a tough injury to come back from. I wouldn't say it's 100 percent yet, but just this summer is going to be huge for me to come back."
With what he hopes will be a full and healthy season on the horizon, Huberdeau admittedly isn't spending his summer dwelling on the past or wallowing in the what-ifs of a season marred by an unfortunate injury. Instead, the former No. 3 overall pick is choosing to take pride in the fact that he has come back from one of the worst injuries a player can sustain and, somehow, is playing even better than he did before.
"It was a long and tough injury, but I'm glad that I went through it like that and had a chance to come back and help the team," Huberdeau said.
When Huberdeau scores, the Panthers usually end up in the win column.
The Panthers posted a 7-2-0 record when Huberdeau lit the lamp during the 2016-17 season, with the Saint-Jerome, Quebec native scoring the game-winning goal in two of those contests.
Huberdeau had a goal and three assists as the Panthers crushed the Chicago Blackhawks 7-0 at the BB&T Center on March 25 - Florida's largest margin of victory since an 8-0 win over Toronto on Feb. 5, 2008.
The game also marked the second four-point game of Huberdeau's career, with the first one taking place during his rookie season when he tallied two goals and two assists in a 5-2 victory over Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 2013.
Video: CHI@FLA: Huberdeau rips a one-timer past Crawford
GOAL OF THE YEAR
In just his fourth game back from injury, Huberdeau played the role of hero in Florida's 6-5 overtime victory over the San Jose Sharks at the SAP Center on Feb. 15.
With 3:22 left in the extra frame, Huberdeau, putting himself in great position in front of San Jose's net, takes a nifty no-look pass from Aleksander Barkov and slips it past goaltender Martin Jones to ice the game and secure a big two points.
"It was a good offensive game," said Huberdeau, who finished the game with two points (1-1-2) and a team-high plus three rating. "We had a good forecheck down there and there were a lot of things open."
Video: FLA@SJS: Huberdeau buries Barkov's feed for OT win