It is hard to imagine how Jonathan Huberdeau‘s draft year could have gone much better. Far from a high profile prospect at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Huberdeau dramatically improved his status in the eyes of the public, the media, and more importantly the scouting community, and is now expected to be one of the first players to hear his name called at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in Minnesota.
Huberdeau’s junior career began in 2009 when the forward from St. Jerome, Quebec was drafted 18th overall in the first round of the QMJHL Entry Draft by the Saint John Sea Dogs. Stepping directly into the lineup, Huberdeau had a solid rookie season, scoring 15 goals and finishing with 35 points in 61 games. The Sea Dogs were a strong team, finishing first in the QMJHL and although Huberdeau was a complementary player in a deep lineup, he certainly showed flashes of talent, particularly with his puck awareness and on-ice vision.
This skill manifested itself even more in the playoffs. Stepping up to fill a larger role, Huberdeau’s production took a definite leap as the Sea Dogs battled all the way to the league finals before losing out on the championship to their provincial rival, the Moncton Wildcats. In 21 playoff games, Huberdeau scored 11 goals and had 18 points, placing him sixth on the team in scoring. This was a healthy improvement for a player who finished 11th in team scoring during the preceding season.
Having provided such a tantalizing taste of his talent during his rookie season, expectations were high that Huberdeau would take another step forward in his sophomore year, even with most of Saint John’s players scheduled to return for the 2010-11 season. But even the most ambitious projections could not encompass the success that Huberdeau saw in his draft year.
Nearly tripling his previous regular season output, Huberdeau finished the year with 43 goals and 105 points in 67 games, to place third in the league in scoring. His offensive dominance blew away even Saint John’s coaching staff, as assistant coach Greg Leland explains, "We wouldn’t put the expectations on a player to triple his points, but we certainly felt that he would get more points this year in the sense that he would probably get more power play time, especially with Mike Hoffman (OTT) and Nick Petersen (PIT) not around this year. So we thought he would get more power play time and certainly his maturation as a player physically as a young man would help him for sure. We knew he would get more points but did we see this type of season coming? I can probably say no, because we didn’t want to put that sort of pressure on him, but we knew there would be growth as a player and in his stats and we certainly saw that."
Finding chemistry with fellow 2011 draft eligible, Zack Phillips and Washington Capitals draft pick, Stanislav Galiev, Huberdeau helped pace the Sea Dogs to the top of the QMJHL‘s standings for a second straight season and like his rookie year, he saved his best for the playoffs.
Saint John laid waste to their opposition during the 2011 playoffs and in 19 games, Huberdeau scored 16 goals and finished with 30 points as the Sea Dogs claimed their first President’s Cup as the league champion. Huberdeau earned the Guy Lafleur Trophy as the playoffs MVP for his efforts.
Amazingly enough, Huberdeau and the Sea Dogs were not finished. Arriving at the 2011 Memorial Cup, Saint John was vying to be the first national champion from the QMJHL since the Quebec Remparts won the tournament in 2006. Success continued to follow the team and their young star, with Saint John beating the host team Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors to win the Memorial Cup. Huberdeau scored three goals and finished with six points in four games and added to his trophy case even more by winning the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as tournament MVP to cap off a dominant draft year for the 17-year-old.
When describing his young charge, Leland compares him to fellow 2011 QMJHL draft eligible Sean Couturier. Originally thought to be the top prospect in the QMJHL, Couturier is now thought to be neck and neck with Huberdeau when it comes to pre-draft rankings.
Says Leland, "Anyone who watches our hockey team will recognize his skill set right off the bat, that’s for sure. He’s got terrific puck skills, what I really like about him is that he protects the puck and he’s very patient with it while he sees the ice, which is pretty unique for a 17-year-old. Sean Couturier is the same kind of mold as Jonathan and they’re both great players that way. But that’s what we really like about Jonathan and the fact that he competes hard in just about every game and he’s got good practice habits which are obviously carrying over so those things are what really standout. Also he’s also pretty defensively responsible, which sometimes is tough for a 17-year-old entering the draft when you’re playing in the Q. But he’s an all-around player and we’re really excited for him."
A talented playmaker, Huberdeau is listed as a center but lined up primarily as a left-wing with the Sea Dogs. Although a center shifting to the wing is normally thought to be an indication that the player cannot balance the extra responsibilities of playing down the middle, Leland says this is far from the case when it comes to Huberdeau.
"We can use him on either position. Zack (Phillips) is more comfortable in the middle and Jonathan’s more versatile so that’s why we put him on the wing. I don’t think it was preset or anything, Jonathan could take center, he’s taken probably 200 face-offs this year, so he’s pretty versatile that way too."
Leland goes on to talk about the chemistry of the line, which not only led to Huberdeau’s jump in production, but also resulted in Phillips finishing seventh in the league in scoring with 95 points, "It’s been great for the two of them. They both see the ice well, so they’ll find each other in open ice or they’ll create open ice by moving off the puck and cycle and so on. Galiev, the right winger on that line is basically the shooter. Not that the other two can’t but he’s got a great shot, so the three of them complement each other very well and that’s a big reason for all our success."
Huberdeau’s improvement has made a fan out of many scouts and has led to him shooting up many draft lists over the course of the season, as NHL Central Scouting’s Kim Houston explains, "I was a little skeptical last year. But he’s improved so much to me. He’s aggressive both physically and mentally, he’s always thinking, no matter what zone he’s in, it’s offense, always ‘how can I create something when I get the puck’ whether it’s in the defensive zone, neutral zone or offensive zone. He’s assertive and he’s always one step ahead of most other guys."
Chris Mooring, International Scouting Services head QMJHL scout echoes Houston’s assessment and adds that "Huberdeau is just one of those kids that just impresses me with the work ethic, the smarts, the skill level, it’s all there."
As talented as Huberdeau is, he still has much to work on and improve as Mooring points out.
"The one thing that at the first of the year would have been a bit of a knock for me would have been that I didn’t have him as high as I have him now because I thought his skating was a little bit awkward and not the prettiest of techniques, he’s kind of a bent-over skater, a bit too bent-over, a bit too much on the front of his skates. I think he’s corrected that a bit now, I think he’s a better skater now, a stronger skater now, a better skater overall. I still think he has some improvement to do, from blue line to blue line, straightaway speed, maybe a little bit on the slow side there. Well, maybe just not up where you’d want a top 10 pick to be. If there’s any knock on him, I think that would be it. That being said, I think his skating is going to be fine down the road; those are all things that he can work on. Technically, he’s a good skater now."
Listed at 6’1 and 177 pounds, Huberdeau needs to continue to add muscle to be a more effective player when fighting for positioning and cycling the puck down low. Leland agrees and feels that as Huberdeau continues to grow and get stronger, he will ultimately become a better player. "Like any player that has ever played the game there’s always areas for growth and he’s taken a growth spurt this year, he’s probably close to 6’3, so I think when he grows into his body, obviously we want him to get stronger but we feel that’s going to come if he trains hard. The defensive part of the game, as you know, when you get higher up in the ranks of hockey, with pro hockey and the NHL, you certainly have to be more aware defensively. Once in a while, he’ll make some mistakes, like most kids and that’s probably another area. But other than that, as long as he trains like a pro and wants to work like a pro, then that is exactly what he’s going to be."
The Saint John Sea Dogs have eight players currently ranked by the NHL’s Central Scouting for the 2011 draft and at one point in the season, that number was a high as ten. With constant pressure and attention due not only to their on-ice success, but also the presence of NHL scouts filling the stands to watch every game, the Sea Dogs coaching staff was careful to not place any undue expectations on their young players, as Leland details, "we don’t bring them in and say, you’re going to be drafted and expect this, this, and this. We’re cognitive of the fact that the kid is 17-years-old and they’ve got other interests. We just try to develop as players and get them ready for pro hockey, but it’s not our intention to obviously recognize that they may be drafted. They know it, they hear it, they see it, it’s everywhere around them with instant messaging and Blackberries and all that stuff today, they can read it anywhere. So we try not to put any undue expectations or pressure on them and just work with them and try to make them the best player they can be and whatever happens, happens"
Leland goes on to compliment Huberdeau’s maturity and explains that the same dedicated work ethic that has made him a top prospect is present in the other aspects of Huberdeau’s life to help keep him grounded.
"He’s an outstanding kid; he’s a very good student. He’s committed to that and that tells you something about him right off the bat. He’s a pretty quiet kid, he’s the youngest guy on our team but he’s easy-going. I don’t think he puts too much pressure on himself. He’s really just a regular teenager in terms of playing Xbox, but he’s got good off-ice habits and I know they speak highly of him at the high school he attends. His billets think he’s great and we do too, so that tells you what type of kid he is."
Expected to be among the first five players selected at the NHL Entry Draft, Huberdeau could be the highest QMJHL player drafted since Sidney Crosby was selected first overall in 2005. However, for that to happen, he’ll need to be picked ahead of fellow QMJHL star Sean Couturier.