TORONTO -- The 2013 NHL rookie of the year race has settled into a familiar template: a few forwards and defensemen jockeying for position behind one forward leading the Calder Trophy field in points and another leading it in goals.
It was Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Read last season. It was Jeff Skinner and Michael Grabner in 2011. This year, it’s Cory Conacher of the Tampa Bay Lightning as the points leader at 23 in 32 games, and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers leading in goals with 12 in 34 games.
A torrid February – 6 goals, 3 assists and a rookie of the month honor – catapulted Huberdeau to the front of the pack for the Calder. But he’s been stuck on 12 goals for weeks: His last tally was on March 8 in an overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
Huberdeau’s goal-less streak hit nine games in Tuesday night’s loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the longest drought of his young NHL career.
“I’m not playing my best game. Gotta play better. Gotta have better thinking with the puck. I’m sure it’s going to come back, but it’s been a few hard games,” he said. “The third [period] was better. I’m going to build on that third.”
Has the 19 year old hit the rookie wall?
“You just gotta stay confident. It’s hard when you have a couple of games where you’re not as good," he said. "I don’t want to build a wall in front of me."
Panthers Coach Kevin Dineen could relate to the rookie’s 9-game goal drought. “I’ve been through those. It’s part of the game. It’s how you react to them more than anything else,” he said.
Huberdeau had a three-game assist streak during that goal-less stretch, and another against the Leafs, but is also a minus-8 during that drought.
“Goals come when you deserve it. I have to work harder,” he said in the Panthers’ dressing room, following the loss to Toronto. “But I’m not worrying about just scoring goals.”
Even if scoring goals brings him closer to the Calder.
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“I don’t really care. I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about the team,” he said. “Even if we’re last, we gotta win some games before the end of the season.”
Every answer Huberdeau gives brings the conversation back to the Panthers and their success as a team. Each answer reminds you that Huberdeau made the leap from the Saint John Sea Dogs of Quebec Major Junior to the NHL one year after the Panthers were Southeast Division champions – and how his rookie season has been played on a battered, underachieving team that will be back in the lottery this summer.
Injuries have mixed up the Panthers’ lineup, and Huberdeau hasn’t escaped that. Against the Leafs, he skated with Mike Santorelli and Shawn Matthias; when he scored his last goal vs. the Jets, it was assisted by Drew Shore and Peter Mueller.
“We have a lot of injuries. It’s pretty hard for our team," he said. "It’s the young guys that have to step up right now. The guys from the AHL, getting their chances."
“I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m still 19.”
He’s 19, but most nights he plays beyond his years. That’s why despite failing to snap the twine for 18 days, he’s building on what he does right in those games. “You can’t be negative. There are so many games, you can’t think about it,” he said, noting that the condensed lockout schedule has helped him not dwell on the negatives.
“It’s my first season. I don’t know what a real season feels like.”
Alas, even if he remains a Calder favorite, he also won’t know what a real NHL Awards ceremony feels like, as the typical Vegas extravaganza is shelved this season.
Like scoring slumps and team struggles, Huberdeau shakes it off.
“It’s hockey. It’s life.”
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