Everyone knows of the blockbuster trade that went down last summer that was headlined by Matthew Tkachuk and Jonathan Huberdeau. Everyone also knows of the storylines that followed. Tkachuk and the Florida Panthers barely made the playoffs and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, while Huberdeau had the biggest point drop off in NHL history and the Calgary Flames just missed the playoffs.
With the 60 point drop off, obviously many questions of why had been asked. Many pointed to Darryl Sutter‘s unwillingness to utilize Huberdeau correctly while others said things such as Huberdeau has a weak mindset or the fall off was bound to happen due to his play style. Being a guy who was a constant over point-per-game player for the past four seasons suddenly falling to roughly 25 points under has made Huberdeau a prime bounce back candidate for this upcoming season, so let’s take a deeper look into what could play a factor in him returning to form.
Comparing his 2021-22 metrics to his 2022-23
To start, we’ll quickly compare Huberdeau’s past two seasons via HockeyViz’s isolated impact charts. 2021-22 is on the left and 2022-23 is on the right. Right away we can see the fall in his offence, going from a +4% to -5%. He was generating tons of high danger shots and offence in 2021-22 shown by the red around the net and in the high slot. Then we go to this past season and all of that generation is gone, shown by the blue in those same areas. There were some improvements in the defence going from a +5% to -2% and shutting down opposing offence in high danger areas. But with Huberdeau, an improvement in defence for a decline in offence is terrible.
What sticks out most to me is the collapse of Huberdeau’s setting. We can see that he broke the chart with +19%, which makes sense considering he led the league with 85 assists that year. Now we glance over to 2022-23 and it has fallen 15% down to a +4% and while a positive number is still a good sign, that big of a drop completely washes out any of the positivity.
Let Huberdeau play to his style
One huge thing that everyone seems to bring up when talking about Huberdeau’s season is how he was unable to play his style. I have constructed a video to analyze how Huberdeau plays best.
First of all, Huberdeau excels with fast paced offence. Most of these clips has him either leading or joining the rush and ending up with a goal or an assist. Rush offence allows Huberdeau to be quickly deceptive and gives him many choices as multiple players are attacking along side him at the same pace. His patience with the puck allows for his teammates to create options and possibilities to develop a scoring chance. If it’s not the rush, in-zone offence that includes fast movement of the feet and puck is another situation where he flourishes for the same reasons.
Huberdeau seems to enjoy being around the perimeter of the ice. He’ll make cuts to the middle to do things such as drive the net or generate a better passing opportunity but the play always starts from the perimeter. Being in this area allows Huberdeau to make those heavy and long passes that would get him on highlight reels. If he’s the first to enter the zone, the defenders are drawn to the outskirts leaving the middle of the ice, also known as the most dangerous area of the ice, open for his teammates to glide into. Many of his goals seems to come from the left side of the ice, usually quite far from the net and he’ll rip the puck to one of the top corners of the net.
Huberdeau also cleaned up and created around the net play quite a bit. He’d take a shot and there would be a teammate to bank in the rebound, he’d make a pass and his teammate would take a shot that ended up as a save but he’d be right there to bury the loose puck, and if attempting a rebound wasn’t right, Huberdeau would take the puck and move around trying to find a quick pass to his teammate.
A huge part of Huberdeau’s former success was his hands and creative mind. You would see him make smooth drag the puck past opponents either creating a scoring chance for himself or his teammate with a pass. He’d make some beautiful creative passes that created the illusion of him having eyes on the back of his head.
So now when you think back to this season, a large part of Huberdeau’s sudden decay in production was the lack of most of this. The Flames did not play fast offence, eliminating many opportunities for Huberdeau to set up plays he was so used to. His confidence also just wasn’t there. He’d play perimeter but not as often and when he did, there wasn’t many of those hard stretch passes and he couldn’t drag in defenders meaning the middle of the ice was being defended.
One the most frustrating things I bet we can all remember was Huberdeau’s inability to shoot, it was like he would never shoot, even if it was the best idea, which made the long shots and around the net play not be as prominent as past seasons. His hands and creativity also weren’t as evident as before which was definitely because of his lack of confidence.
Obviously there was flashes of typical Huberdeau but it just wasn’t as usual as it needed to be and most of that can likely be pinned on his confidence disappearing due to playing a system his style didn’t fit.
Successful powerplay, successful Huberdeau
One of the main reasons for Huberdeau’s production in Florida was the powerplay, so the Flames powerplay finally clicking could play a huge role in him bouncing back. For the powerplay to build chemistry, it’s probably best that Huberdeau plays a role he’s comfortable with.
Based on his time with the Panthers, he seems that he does best as a stationary man. He can’t be that player you pass the puck back to to enter the zone. What he did best was waiting on the left side and either ripping the puck top corner or passing to the middle of the ice for a one timer. Most of the players he played with in Florida were left-handed shooters, so it may be better if he goes on the right side so he can give one timing opportunities to Elias Lindholm. A few other options are that he stays on the left side and Lindholm can take strong wrist shots or a left shot like Yegor Sharangovich takes Lindholm’s typical role.
While getting Huberdeau to play his style is very important you can’t force other players to match his style if they are unable to without being hypocritical, so it’s also just as important to find those players that can match his style and play on his line.
Put Huberdeau with players that will suit him best
For Huberdeau to succeed you need to find players already on the Flames roster that can compliment him and play a faster pace offence. Before we start theorizing, let’s look at the Flames spent the most time with this past season. His most common linemates at 5v5 were Nazem Kadri, Mikael Backlund, and Elias Lindholm. Huberdeau and Kadri spent roughly 515 minutes together which was 220 minutes more than Huberdeau and Backlund and 300 minutes more than Huberdeau and Lindholm.
With Kadri, he scored 8 goals and 22 points, with Backlund, 2 goals and 10 points, and with Lindholm, 0 goals and 4 points. When looking at these point totals it’d be easy to say he should play with Kadri and never with Lindholm, but it’s not that simple as he played way more minutes with Kadri and him and Lindholm were super unlucky together.
Huberdeau’s most common linemates in Florida were Sam Bennett and Anthony Duclair, so you could follow the playmaker-power forward-sniper set up and go with a line of Huberdeau, Kadri and Sharangovich. This would give Huberdeau two left handed linemates which is who he plays best with.
When he and Kadri played together, they didn’t seem to mesh well as one of them would sometimes seem to try everything on his own, so for this theoretical line to work, there would have to be more trust and more of sharing the puck.
The next possible line is the exact same except Kadri is swapped for Lindholm. This would remove the power forward from the line but give Huberdeau two goal scorers to work with. When Huberdeau and Lindholm played together, they looked great but not many points were being produced.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, a reason for this could’ve been their 4.95 on-ice shooting percentage which is low compared to league average rendering them unlucky. The reason I keep including Sharangovich is because he reminds of Duclair in a way as they’re both smooth skating wingers that can have a knack for scoring when they’re hot.
How can Huberdeau have a bounce back year?
There’s quite a few things that need to happen for Huberdeau to return to form. Ryan Huska‘s system needs to allow Huberdeau to play his style. The system doesn’t have to compliment just him because that will likely end up in failure, but it needs to at least give him freedom and play similar to how he use to. His confidence also needs to comeback for him to be successful Another thing is that the powerplay should run through him.
Huberdeau was still solid on the powerplay but not nearly as good as he was in Florida. The Flames should likely slot him into a similar role that the Panthers did and have him as the main man. The last thing is don’t force players that can’t play with him to play with him. Find current Flames that will be able to have success with him and build much needed chemistry.