Florida Panthers

Jonathan Huberdeau making up for lost time since his return to Panthers’ lineup

Florida Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau (11) shoots and scores against the Nashville Predators during the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
Florida Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau (11) shoots and scores against the Nashville Predators during the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. AP

Jonathan Huberdeau has come a long way from his days as a fresh-faced kid who was so skinny his general manager sent him back to his junior team because he didn’t want him getting killed on the ice.

Back from missing the first four months of the season because of a severed Achilles tendon, Huberdeau has picked up where he left off after the best season of his short NHL career.

Huberdeau scored the game-winning goal in his personal opening night on Feb. 3 and added his second goal of his season on Saturday afternoon in Nashville against the Predators.

Yeah, Huberdeau is back.

“I feel like it could take some time to really get back,” said Huberdeau, who set career-bests with 20 goals and 59 points last season.

“I have to be patient a little, get into it. But I feel pretty good, actually, in the first three games. I may as well keep going.”

Huberdeau had played well enough in his first training camp with the Panthers that he should have been on what would become the Southeast Division champions in 2011-12.

Dale Tallon just couldn’t do it.

“He has simply matured before our eyes,” said Tallon, who sent Huberdeau back to his Canadian junior team in 2011 and then watched him win the league’s rookie of the year award the following season.

“He is comfortable in the position he is in, and he has grown mentally and physically. He’s still a young man, but he’s not the kid I had to send back because I was worried about him getting crushed.”

Huberdeau has gained about 30 pounds in the time since, and he has matured into quite the tough player.

Once quiet and unassuming, Huberdeau now walks around the Panthers with his chest out, his head high.

He has become a leader on this team and has shown his importance to its success through his absence.

The Panthers most definitely missed having Huberdeau in their lineup and look much improved with him in it.

Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov returned in the same game against the Ducks — Barkov had missed a month with a back injury — and along with Jaromir Jagr their line has accounted for five goals and 10 points in their first three games back together.

“You look at how serious that injury is and you don’t want to diminish that, but I’m not surprised he was able to come back so quick,” Derek MacKenzie said.

“He may have some of the best hands in the league. He worked hard to get his feet under himself to be able to make plays.”

Said Tallon: “Jonathan has told me all along that he wants to be the guy here, and I believe him. He could have had a career-threatening injury, and we saw his desire and leadership in working to come back.”

Having Huberdeau and Barkov back in the lineup finally allows the Panthers to put out the team they counted on during the offseason.

Although there have been some minor changes to the original lineup plans, the key pieces are there.

With Barkov, Huberdeau and Jagr back together, Florida’s second line of Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen are able to continue.

That leads to players such as Jonathan Marchessault — a career-high 16 goals so far this season — and Nick Bjugstad sliding down and giving Florida four pretty good forward lines.

That was their plan during the offseason.

“That’s why we put this team together the way we did,” general manager and interim coach Tom Rowe said. “We thought it would bring balance, and we’re starting to see that.

“Huberdeau missed so much hockey, yet it looks like he hasn’t missed a game. It gives our whole team a big lift.”