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Huska juggles lines in hopes of jumpstarting struggling Huberdeau

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

In the latest attempt to break the embattled Jonathan Huberdeau out of a month-long scoring malaise, Calgary Flames head coach Ryan Huska swapped him and fellow struggling forward Andrew Mangiapane at practice on Thursday.

The Flames (14-16-5, 33 points, fifth in Pacific Division) are five points out of the second wild-card spot in Western Conference.

Huberdeau has gone pointless in 12 games, goal-less in 17, and will, at least temporarily, be reunited with Elias Lindholm and Yegor Sharangovich, who he started training camp with. Mangiapane, who has two goals in his past 24 games and is the Flames’ third highest-paid forward behind Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri, will play with Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman

The move enables Huska to deploy Mangiapane-Backlund-Coleman as a checking line, a role the trio played with great success two seasons ago when the Flames won the Pacific Division. While with Huberdeau, Backlund and Coleman had been used more in the offensive zone. 

The swap does, however, leave Huberdeau, who is on pace for 35 points after notching 115 in 2021-22, with a centre he’s shown little to no chemistry with in Lindholm. The past season and a half at five-on-five, both players have been on the ice for a higher percentage of goals when not playing with one another. They can’t find each other with the puck and rarely have generated consistent offensive zone time. 

But with Kadri finding a home alongside rookies Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil on the team’s best line and the poor optics of having the highest-paid player in franchise history on the fourth line, Huska seemingly didn’t have a choice but to reunite two players who simply haven’t meshed. 

“That’s the million-dollar question that everybody’s asking right now, is where to place certain people,” Huska acknowledged.

“They have to figure out how to get on that same page. And if we’re looking at our team and even to find a little more from certain people, they’re two of our key players and they need to find a way to come together and get the job done for us. Sharan’s done a good job over the past little while of improving his game both offensively and defensively, so there’s a shooting threat on that line now. It has the makings of something, now it’s up to the three of them to come together and get the job done.”

Huberdeau, in the first season of an eight-year, $84 million contract, feels he has played better of late, despite the drought.

“I think I’m making plays,” he said, “it’s just not going in. Maybe that’s not what everybody sees, but in my opinion, I’m making passes and getting chances. I think it’s a matter of time. It’s been a lot of games with no points, but…I just feel like I’m making good plays out there.”

Huska implied that it’s Huberdeau’s play without the puck that’s holding him back. He’s a team-worst minus-14 and often looks unengaged in the defensive zone. Along the boards, Huberdeau doesn’t consistently win one-on-one battles. 

“His challenge is to make sure that he’s committed to doing things away from the puck as hard as he can to put himself in positions where he gets to play with the puck,” Huska explained. “From there, it’s making sure your feet are always moving so you have multiple options when he’s looking to pass the puck.”

Huberdeau’s trying to block out the noise that the pointless streak has brought.

“I try to forget,” he said, joking that he "could go 60 games without a point at this point."

“I stopped thinking about it because if not, it’s just going to make me frustrated.”

If there’s a positive, it’s that Huberdeau sees his game on an upward trajectory–even if the results haven’t shown yet.

“We all know it’s been hard here, but it’s a process and I try to stick with it,” he said.

“I think I see some positives in my game and I’ve gotta take that…if I find all the negatives, it’s just going to bring me down. I’ve gotta dig myself out of the hole.”

Seemingly game after game, Huska is asked about Huberdeau and has been diplomatic and supportive in his responses, even after he benched the star forward weeks ago. Thursday afternoon, he was more candid. 

Huberdeau’s struggles impact more than just himself. In trading Matthew Tkachuk for him two summers ago, the franchise banked on Huberdeau being able to carry the team to the postseason in the early years of the contract. Instead, the Flames right now are projected to miss the playoffs again and, with pending free agents in Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and Chris Tanev possibly dealt for draft picks and prospects, may soon be further from contention. 

Huska’s comments felt like him imploring Huberdeau to dig even deeper and, perhaps, alter his mindset given how much the organization risked in committing to him long term.

“It’s not anything about looking for things to come easy,” Huska said.

“You have to be prepared for everything to be hard right now and you have to accept that you have to make sure you’re willing to play through what you have to play through in order to get himself back to the level he wants to be at.”