Florida Panthers

New Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant expects a bounce-back season for Jonathan Huberdeau

Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau celebrates a goal against the Washington Senators on Dec. 3, 2013.
Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau celebrates a goal against the Washington Senators on Dec. 3, 2013. Miami Herald Staff

Jonathan Huberdeau didn’t hesitate when asked who the most influential person was during his years of playing junior hockey in Canada.

It’s the same man who is now his coach with the Florida Panthers.

Gerard Gallant gets his second shot at coaching an NHL team with the Panthers. In the years between getting fired in Columbus and being hired by Florida in June, Gallant spent time as an NHL assistant but also as coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs for three seasons.

It was there that Gallant met Huberdeau for the first time. The results were dynamic.

They sure would love to see a repeat.

“He was 155 pounds when I had him, but he was a great hockey player with a lot of competitiveness,” Gallant said of Huberdeau, who averaged 1.7 points per game in his final three seasons with the Sea Dogs. “He’s getting bigger and stronger and his game is going to come. I know this kid, know his passion.

“He’s not just going to be a good hockey player, but a real good one in this league.”

Huberdeau, who sang Gallant’s praises months before his old coach became his new one, had plenty of early success with the Panthers, winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

Last year, however, took a toll on the third-overall pick of the 2011 draft.

Huberdeau struggled for large chunks of the season, adversity affecting his game on the ice for the first time in his life.

Used to being the best player on the ice, Huberdeau admits last season was one he would like to forget, although it’s a learning process that has spurred him on.

“I don’t ever want to go through that again,” said Huberdeau, who scored just nine goals in 69 games. “It was my second year, and it’s over with. I don’t want to be the player I was last year. I didn’t have much fun, wasn’t playing well. This is a new season, and I’m ready to take it to the next level.”

This summer, Huberdeau didn’t have to deal with recovering from the hip surgery he did in 2013 and hit the gym hard.

“I didn’t feel very strong last year,” he said.

Huberdeau finished last season with perhaps his best hockey of the year. His goal against Philadelphia on April 8 snapped a 19-game slump before he headed off to the World Championships.

“I liked the way I finished and being able to go to the World Championships was huge,” Huberdeau said. “I wanted to finish the year on a positive note heading into the summer, and I feel like I did that. I came home and was a little higher on myself. I know I can be a better player. It helped me. I’m ready for this.”

Coming into this year, Gallant is giving Huberdeau every opportunity to bounce back. He played his final preseason game on Florida’s top line with creative second-year center Aleksander Barkov. He will get plenty of chances on Florida’s top power-play unit.

“I have a couple good players with me, so we just need to fit together,” Huberdeau said. “I think we can be a good line, put up some points.”

If Huberdeau bounces back, the Panthers will be much better off for it.

Florida could definitely use the scoring Huberdeau’s been known for throughout his career.

“Last year didn’t go the way he wanted it to,” Gallant said. “His first year was great, and last year was just fair. We expect him to be a good player for us this year. He’s been solid.”

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