For years, Aleksander Barkov was the NHL’s most underrated player. He was the league’s best-kept secret.
When a player is underrated, there is talk of said player being underrated, especially in a case like Barkov where those in the know knew how good he really was and how long it took the rest of hockey to catch up. After that chatter picks up though, a player can no longer be called underrated, and Barkov certainly isn’t that anymore.
However, his linemate, best friend and running mate can now pick up where Barkov left off. Jonathan Huberdeau isn’t just the league’s most underrated player, and now a first-time All-Star, he’s far more than that. He’s a superstar.
Meeting the hype is never easy for any young player, especially one like Huberdeau, who scored on his first NHL shift on his first NHL shot. In a league where younger and younger players are leading franchises, Huberdeau always showed flashes of brilliance but never led the line. He was consistently good, but never noticeably great. His horrible Achilles injury during the 2016 preseason took so much of that potential away, as well as his nagging hip problem before. But ever since, he is a player who has realized and exceeded the potential he showed in his formative years, and perhaps is even more than that.
Since he returned in 2017 from injury, he has 240 points in 233 games. He’s set the single-season franchise record for assists, the franchise record for assists, and by the end of the coming road trip, he figures to have the most points in franchise history. Offensively, few can create in the NHL like he does, without being a total defensive liability.
He’s not only elevated by playing with who he plays with, but he’s also someone who now makes those around him better, as evidenced by Noel Acciari’s seven goals in three games with Huberdeau playing with him. Only three players currently have more assists in the NHL as of this writing, only six have more points. He’s averaging nearly three xG60 this season. For reference, Connor McDavid is averaging 2.83.
Aging curves are skewing younger and younger in the NHL. Superstars are younger than ever. Prime productions are perceived now to be earlier than ever before in a player’s career. Jonathan Huberdeau is playing his best hockey at age 26 and in his seventh NHL season. And it isn’t like his game has been static; it’s been dynamic, evolving and growing with every season.
Would the Huberdeau of a couple of seasons back have done this?
He’s every bit as creative with the puck as he’s been his entire career, but he’s more in control than ever before. He doesn’t force the play in the offensive zone, the play comes to him. The game slows down when he’s in control, and for a Panthers team that doesn’t possess the puck nearly as well as they could, when Huberdeau is on the ice, it feels as if he’s playing keep away. Those years spent playing with Jaromir Jagr taught him how to protect the puck and be stronger on it in ways that few other creative players are. He’s not a speedster like Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon and he’s not a brute force like Alex Ovechkin, he’s a good blend of both.
He’s also become more decisive. In the past, the biggest knock on Huberdeau’s game was his willingness to be too unselfish and pass instead of shoot. That’s still there now; he’s still a playmaker at heart. But his decision-making is better than ever before, which is making him even more deadly.
What’s also amazing is how Huberdeau has exploded in performance almost quietly. When talking about the league’s best wingers and playmakers, it might take a minute to get to Huberdeau, which is remarkable considering how good he’s been. Superstars also find a way to take their game to the next level, even after amazing accomplishments.
Huberdeau’s 2018-19 season was historic by Panthers standards, and he could easily smash that this year. Not all development curves are the same and not all players are created equal, especially in a league where superstars are younger and younger. But Huberdeau is proving that player primes are fluid and that no matter when they’re reached, they can still be spectacular.
In another timeline, Huberdeau would have been a multiple-time All-Star already. He more than deserves his first appearance this season, and he more than deserves the attention. In a league where it’s still somehow possible to be a superstar in secret, Huberdeau has become that, after being the league’s best-kept secret period.
It almost feels like even the Panthers take his greatness for granted. He’s been around for so long and seen so much that his presence and his greatness is assumed and expected. In another year, and maybe for another team, he’d be a contender for the Hart Trophy.
Jonathan Huberdeau has always been very good. Last year, he was great. This year, he’s been transcendent. He’s a superstar.