Jonathan Huberdeau is slowly turning into a defensive winger. The start to Huberdeau’s Calgary Flames career has been far from ideal, however there’s been one overwhelming positive to his first couple months in Calgary and it’s not the one you would’ve expected.
Huberdeau has completely transformed his defensive game under the Flames, and has turned his main weakness into a huge strength in his game. Huberdeau’s results this season in his own end look great not only when compared against his own team, but also the rest of the NHL. He’s legitimately been one of the better two-way wingers in the league. Who would’ve thought that his defensive game would be the standout aspect to his Flames tenure thus far?
Let’s take a look at just how solid Huberdeau has been defensively this season.
Huberdeau’s on-ice defence compared to his teammates
All numbers are 5v5, score- and venue-adjusted courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com. Only forwards with minimum 300 minutes TOI at 5v5 were considered.
|Team Rank Among Flames Forwards||1st||2nd||4th||1st||2nd||1st|
If you would’ve showed someone these numbers with no context of which Flames forward they were from, I don’t think anyone would’ve guessed Huberdeau. These look like Mikael Backlund-esque defensive numbers, not a forward in Huberdeau who has historically struggled in his own zone.
When Huberdeau is on the ice, the Flames are not giving up much of anything most nights. He ranks first in three of the six metrics. In particular his per 60 minute rates are very strong. His 1.42 GA/60 is the only rate on the entire team among forwards below 1.5. Backlund’s 1.85 GA/60 is the next closest total. Before the games against the Canucks and Blues Huberdeau’s GA/60 was just 0.95.
Huberdeau has only been on the ice for eight goals against at 5v5 this season, three of those coming in their most last two games. Even more impressive is the names under him. The next lowest total on the Flames belongs to Adam Ruzicka at nine goals against. Ruzicka has played under 230 minutes at 5v5 this season. A much smaller total compared to Huberdeau’s over 350 minutes at 5v5.
The next closest regular member of the Flames would be Backlund, who has been on the ice for 12 goals against at 5v5 in 393 minutes of ice time. Huberdeau is the only regular Flame forward with single digit goals against at even strength.
Huberdeau’s on-ce defence compared to the rest of the NHL
Similarly as above, only forwards with minimum 300 minutes TOI at 5v5 were considered.
|Rank Among NHL Forwards||14th||14th||47th||13th||15th||10th|
As if his numbers weren’t impressive when compared to his own teammates, they look even just as good when compared to the rest of the NHL. He’s putting up some of the best defensive numbers across the board in the entire NHL among wingers, which is something I don’t think anyone would’ve expected. Once again his per 60 rates at 5v5 look great even when compared to every other forward in the NHL.
His GA at 5v5 rank 14th in the NHL among forwards with at least 300 minutes at 5v5. Considering there are 248 eligible forwards who have played at least 300 minutes at 5v5 this season, that number is mighty impressive. It’s worth noting once again that he had just five goasl against before the games against the Canuck and Blues earlier this week. He also ranks 14th for xGA, so it’s not like there’s a big discrepancy between expected and actual goals.
Even his CA/60 numbers which are lower still rank top 50 in the NHL. There are 248 forwards who have played at least 300 minutes as mentioned, so ranking where he does is still very impressive. Past that, he ranks top 10 in both HDCA/60 with his GA/60 and xGA/60 not far behind sitting in 13th and 15th respectively.
The next closest Flame for GA/60 is Backlund who ranks 48th in the NHL. For HDCA/60 the next closest Flame is Tyler Toffoli who ranks 33rd. Ranking top 10 is quite the achievement for Huberdeau.
The differences in Huberdeau’s lasts two seasons
Huberdeau’s numbers are night and day compared to his results from last season playing with the Florida Panthers. He’s gone from a liability in his own zone to the complete opposite. His GA/60 in 2021–22 was double what he’s posting right now. Likewise, his HDCA/60 was an absolutely dreadful 13.96/60 last year, which is much lower this season at 8.09. Lastly, his xGA/60 was also rough last year and is almost down a full goal in 2022–23.
There’s still plenty season left, but as it stands his CA/60 would be the second lowest of his career, while his GA/60, xGA/60, and HDCA/60 would all be the lowest totals of his 11-year career. It’s incredibly rare for a player age 29 to suddenly completely change one aspect of their game in which they struggled for a decade prior into a major strength.
Just take a look at his Regularized Adjust Plus-Minus (RAPM) courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com from last season compared to this season. They’re essentially polar opposites in every way. What was once his major weakness, is now his main strength.
If we take a look at his defensive impacts courtesy of hockeyviz.com with Huberdeau on the ice last year with the Panthers compared to this season with the Flames, it once again tells a very clear story. Last season the Panthers xGA/60 went up with Huberdeau out there, this year the Flames xGA/60 is way down with him out there. The Panthers were worse defensively with Huberdeau on the ice last season, while the Flames are much better defensively with him on the ice this season. The difference between 2021–22 and 2022–23 isn’t even close either.
Redefining his game
Huberdeau’s first couple months as a Calgary Flames have gone much worse than most expected, however there are still some positives buried underneath the scoring struggles. Huberdeau has completely transformed his defensive game this season, going from a liability to a reliable two-way winger in his own zone.
He may not have the scoring numbers just yet, but the fact that the Flames system has been able to drastically alter his defensive game into a major strength is nice to see. We know he has the talent to be an offensive threat every night, and if he can find that touch again combined with his now top-end defensive play, he could become an elite two-way winger for the Flames. The Flames desperately need him to be, and soon.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire