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Flames, Huberdeau need to reset on-ice relationship in 2024

Jonathan Huberdeau Calgary Flames Jonathan Huberdeau - Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

No one questions how much Calgary Flames forward Jonathan Huberdeau cares.

No one doubts how hard he tries. No one disputes how well-liked and appreciated he is within the Flames organization and locker room, or how committed he is to the greater Calgary community. 

But 16 months into his tenure as a Flame (and three months into an eight-year, $84 million contract that makes him the franchise’s highest-paid player by a fair margin), it’s evident that the relationship hasn’t quite worked out the way both parties had hoped it would. 

Huberdeau’s 60-point drop from 2021-22, where he set an NHL record for points by a left winger with 115, to 55 in 2022-23, is the largest in National Hockey League history.

The thought was that under a new head coach in Ryan Huska and a far more positive and amicable work environment this season after no-nonsense bench boss Darryl Sutter was fired on May 1, Huberdeau would rebound and become the playmaking, electrifying winger he was in Florida for the better part of a decade with the Panthers. While few figured he would hit the century mark in points again, the expectations of a point-per-game impact and a consistently noticeable presence on the ice seemed modest.

A handful of months into the newest era of Flames hockey, those new, lower expectations have not been met.

Huberdeau is on pace for a further drop-off in production, currently projected for 35 points. He has gone 12 games without a point and 17 games without a goal. Huberdeau has been held point-less in over 50 per cent (59 of 114) games he’s played as a Flame.  Beyond the stats line, the 30-year-old native of Saint-Jerome, Que., often isn’t noticeable on the ice. He can’t hit his teammates on the tape with passes, loses 50/50 battles, gives the puck away, and often looks disengaged defensively.

Huberdeau also hasn’t helped the Flames power play, which is languishing near the bottom of the league at just 12.3 per cent efficiency and seemingly takes away momentum from the team during games. 

Huberdeau’s struggles have also put the team’s forwards in a holding pattern, given the organization has invested so much in trying to get him going offensively and find him ideal linemates. The dilemma that continues for the Flames nearly a season and a half after Calgary acquired him is where Huberdeau fits in on any given night. 

While the team is still not where it wants to be in the standings, several of the forwards have shown a chemistry that simply was nonexistent a season ago under Sutter. Nazem Kadri has been one of the best players while centring rookies Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil. Yegor Sharangovich, acquired from the New Jersey Devils in the off-season in exchange for Tyler Toffoli, has showed flashes alongside Elias Lindholm. Blake Coleman and Mikael Backlund continue to work well together.

Huberdeau has spent the bulk of the season alongside Coleman and Backlund as a pseudo-checking line, but he might not be the ideal fit for two players who carry significant defensive responsibilities, relentlessly forecheck, and play a blue-collar game. Since the trio was put together on Nov. 13, Coleman and Backlund have seen a significant increase in offensive zone starts, while Lindholm has been forced to shoulder more defensive responsibility.

During the 2021-22 season, when the Flames won the division with 50 wins and 111 points, Coleman and Backlund played with Andrew Mangiapane. They formed an extremely effective shutdown line that constantly controlled possession while winning puck battles behind the net and playing north-south, traits that simply aren’t Huberdeau’s strong suit. Mangiapane, experiencing struggles of his own with 17 points in 34 games, hasn’t been reunited with Coleman and Backlund in more than a month, in part because coaches felt Backlund would get Huberdeau going. 

Huberdeau hasn’t shown chemistry with Kadri or Lindholm either, severely limiting Huska’s options. Huska benched him versus Nashville, took him off the first power-play unit, has given him more offensive zone starts than any veteran forward beyond Kadri, and publicly supported him at every turn. On a broader level, the franchise solicited Huberdeau’s input during last spring’s coaching search and hired a creative offensive mind in former NHLer Marc Savard to coach the forwards.

There are signs, however, that the organization is running out of options and ideas. 

Following Thursday’s practice, where Huberdeau was reunited with Lindholm and Sharangovich, Huska was asked about his performance. Huska mentioned the positive, but noted that Huberdeau has to increase his commitment and engagement away from the puck – worrying comments for a coach to make about a highly paid veteran.

Huska also noted that they can’t tailor systems to one player and that the onus is on the player to adapt to the team’s style of play. Huberdeau took responsibility but said that he feels his game is coming around, despite the lack of statistical evidence.

If Huberdeau was producing at even an average clip, the rest of the forwards could be slotted better, and the team would have a much better shot at remaining competitive during a period of transition. If the Flames were to decide to go into a full rebuild, Huberdeau’s contract and lack of production hinder their ability to use that cap space.

Heading into 2024, the only Flames New Year’s resolution has to be figuring out the answer to what has become a complex question: “How do we get the most out of Jonathan Huberdeau?”

Huberdeau’s New Year’s resolution has to be figuring out how he can start living up to the now modest on-ice expectations that come with being the highest-paid player in franchise history.

A roster reset seems imminent, with Lindholm, Chris Tanev, and Noah Hanifin possibly on the move given they are on the final seasons of expiring contracts. In those trade negotiations, general manager Craig Conroy has to target a centre that can complement Huberdeau, someone who drives the net, can open up ice, and find soft spots in defences to receive his passes – even if it means gambling on a younger, more unproven player or losing a trade on paper.

Coaches also have to see where they can tweak their offensive systems to better suit his skills. In Florida, Huberdeau created more offence from the middle of the ice and in transition. In Calgary, he tends to get the puck along the boards, while stationary, or behind the net. Beyond the stats sheet, the coaching staff must consider radically altering its approach.

Huberdeau himself bears plenty of responsibility and has to commit to improving in all areas of the game. He has to increase his compete level and be more emotionally engaged on a nightly basis. He has to become competent defensively and adopt a more blue-collar approach on the ice. Huberdeau has to become more confident. He has to take ownership for how his tenure on the ice in Calgary has gone so far and make a serious commitment to changing. He has to go from saying the right things publicly to doing the right things on the ice.

As a person, Huberdeau is every bit the human being the organization could hope for and then some. He’s humble, genuine, answers tough questions, has embraced life in Calgary, and is a beloved teammate.

There’s a reason other Flames publicly and privately defend him and sing his praises. Everyone, be they Flames management, teammates, fans, and even media, is hoping Huberdeau succeeds and has a long, storied career in Calgary. 

Well over a season into his time in Calgary, however, the stakes with his new contract – signed under former GM Brad Treliving – have become too great to ignore. To start 2024, both Huberdeau and the Flames have to have honest conversations about how these first 16 months have gone,  figure out how they want the remaining years of his contract to ultimately go, and work towards that common goal. 

The franchise’s immediate future and long-term direction depend on it.