Entering last season, Jonathan Huberdeau was coming off a career-best 20-goal, 59-point campaign, a six-year $35.4 million contract extension and was in the best shape of his life after putting nearly 20 pounds of muscle on his lanky 6-1 frame during summer workouts.
But in the final preseason game on Oct. 8, 2016, Huberdeau collided with New Jersey’s Sergey Kalinen behind the net and the rookie center’s skate blade sliced a huge chunk of Huberdeau’s left Achilles tendon.
At 23, Huberdeau saw his hockey life pass in front of his eyes as he needed help to get off the ice.
Once a career-threatening injury, medical advancements and cutting-edge rehabilitation methods enabled Huberdeau to return to the lineup four months later, stronger than ever.
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He not only scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 3, he tallied three goals and seven points in his first four games.
Huberdeau went on to score 10 goals and 26 points in 31 games, but was unable to save the Panthers’ disastrous season.
He hasn’t slowed down since.
“I knew it was going to be bad; I couldn’t put any weight on it,” Huberdeau said after morning skate Friday at the BB&T Center, several hours before the Panthers hosted the San Jose Sharks.
“Mentally, it’s hard. You learn a lot. You can’t take anything for granted. Nothing is guaranteed in this league. There’s always someone coming in who wants to take your spot.
“I’ve had a lot of injuries since I started. Thank God, I’m OK now and able to play at 100 percent.”
No one is taking Huberdeau’s job. He’s on the fast track to becoming one of the elite left wings in the NHL.
Huberdeau, coming off his third three-point outing of the season in Tuesday’s 5-4 victory over the New York Rangers, leads the Panthers with 25 points in 24 games while averaging a career-high 19:58 time on ice.
No Panther has averaged a point-per-game since Olli Jokinen in 2006-07.
Among left wings, Huberdeau, 24, is in the top five in assists and points. His 2.7 points per 60 minutes while skating 5-on-5 leads all Panthers skaters as does his 73 shots on net.
“He’s a guy who creates his own thing and doesn’t wait around to have everybody create for him,” Panthers first-year coach Bob Boughner said. “Any time he’s around the net he’s got a chance to score. He’s definitely a top-notch player and huge guy for us.”
Although Huberdeau was the third overall draft pick in 2011 and the franchise’s first Calder Trophy recipient in the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season, he’s often overshadowed by Aleksander Barkov, his longtime center.
Barkov, 22, who has 23 points in 24 games, and Huberdeau no longer have Jaromir Jagr, their iconic mentor and right wing for the past two-plus seasons, but they both sponged enough knowledge from the future Hall of Famer to take their game to the next level.
“[He taught us] to have confidence,” Huberdeau said. “He would tell us, ‘You and Barky are really good players, but you’re better than what you are right now.’
“He made us push ourselves harder to be 100 percent in our strengths and it helped us and our confidence.”
The top line didn’t skip a beat with Evgenii Dadonov replacing Jagr, but after scoring 18 points in 22 games Dadonov sustained a shoulder injury that will sideline him for four to six weeks.
In stepped 20-year-old Denis Malgin, and all he did was score the game-winner Tuesday off assists from Mark Pysyk and Huberdeau.
Opposing coaches are certainly aware of Huberdeau’s soft hands and uncanny passing skills.
“I’ve watched him all the way back in the Memorial Cup when he was playing junior, and you could see he was an exceptional player,’’ Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. “You could see he’s coming into his own.”
Now playing for his fifth head coach in six seasons, Huberdeau cares little about individual goals and only wants to lead his team back to the playoffs, à la 2015-16.
“I just want to help our team. It’s not about my points,” Huberdeau said. “This is my sixth year and I’m supposed to be a leader out there.
“Every time I step on the ice I want to be a threat offensively and this year it’s been pretty good. I still got more and haven’t played my best hockey.’’