Published May 21, 2011
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -- It started last season; it just took some time for the hockey world to catch on to Jonathan Huberdeau, the quiet superstar whose dynamic postseason helped the Saint John Sea Dogs roar into the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
The 17-year-old's scintillating 43-goal, 105-point regular season eventually began to turn heads, earning him the No. 3 spot in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft. The left wing then dominated the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs, compiling 16 goals and 30 points in only 19 games as the Sea Dogs won the league title.
Huberdeau saved some of his best for the Sea Dogs' 4-3 win against the host Mississauga St. Michael's Majors in the Memorial Cup opener Friday here at the Hershey Centre, showcasing his slick skills while scoring once and setting up fellow top prospect Nathan Beaulieu's game-winning goal.
"I was feeling good," Huberdeau said afterward.
"He's a special player," Beaulieu said. "There's a reason why he's ranked in the top five in the draft."
But this season hasn't been Huberdeau's coming out party.
Fresh off a 15-goal, 35-point rookie season, Huberdeau busted loose during the Sea Dogs' run to last year's QMJHL final, scoring 11 goals and 18 points in 21 games.
"I go back and say last year really started in the playoffs when the kid took off," Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant said Friday. "You knew he was going to be an elite player."
Mike Kelly, the Sea Dogs' Director of Hockey Operations, goes back even further than Gallant. He knew his organization had a special talent when a 145-pound Huberdeau showed up to his first training camp.
"When he came to us last year in training camp, we knew the boy had a very high hockey IQ, an exceptional player that way -- modest, all the intangibles that you need to become a great, great player," Kelly said.
So how has Huberdeau built on that 2010 playoff run and transformed himself into one of hockey's most coveted prospects?
"You try to work on your weaknesses," Huberdeau said. "My skating, I tried to work on that. I'm not a very speedy guy, but I'm going to try to use my speed and get better and shoot more."
Kelly said "everything's just sort of happened," in Huberdeau's development. He's now listed at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds.
"He grew a little bit more," said Kelly. "He got a little bit heavier, a little bit more confidence. He's a very, very hungry player. He's a very competitive player. It's probably his No. 1 asset."
Gallant believes that tenacity made Huberdeau a special talent.
"He's a passionate kid," Gallant said. "He wants to win every puck battle, he wants to win every faceoff, and that's why he's the player he is. Everything he does … he does it hard. He goes to school, he's an excellent student. He comes to practice, he works hard. He wants to get better. So that's why he’s taken it to the next level."
The fierce competiveness belies Huberdeau's off-ice nature. He's soft-spoken and polite, someone willing to speak about school as much as hockey.
He has to morph into a different person during games, though.
"I'm trying to change the game," Huberdeau said. "Sometimes maybe I can be a beast."
Not in the classroom, however. Huberdeau's father, Alain, has pushed him to value education.
"My dad would say, 'School's very important.' … School's a big key for me," Huberdeau said. "You never know what's going to happen. That's great that he pushed me to go to school."
Huberdeau's academic focus even raised questions about his availability for the QMJHL, Kelly said.
"That's what's intriguing about him," Kelly said. "He comes from a very, very modest sort of family. That's why there were questions (about) whether or not he was going to come to the league, because school's very important to him, and once you're able to answer those questions, he wants to play."
Huberdeau picked an English-speaking high school this year so he could improve his second language, something he acknowledged "wasn't good" last year.
"English is the world," Huberdeau said. "French, you can't do anything. If you want to work somewhere, you got to speak English."
Kelly added: "If you know the boy, it's easy to understand (his decision). He wants to do the best at everything he does. He was always a very good student. … He just thought there's an opportunity. He didn't want to let the opportunity slide away."
Huberdeau will speak have to speak English on a regular basis if he cracks the NHL next season. He feels he'll be ready if he adds more weight. Huberdeau played center until Gallant switched him to the wing last season so he could skate on a top line. With a dearth of elite NHL centers, however, he could provide some immediate help in the middle.
Right now, however, thoughts of the Draft have been pushed to the backburner.
"You see what happens after the Memorial Cup," Huberdeau said.
With more performances like Friday, Huberdeau could enhance his status. Goals by Majors captain Casey Cizikas, a 2009 fourth-round pick of the Islanders, and Devante Smith-Pelly, a 2010 second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks, put Mississauga up 2-1, but Huberdeau tipped a Michael Kirkpatrick shot behind Majors goalie J.P. Anderson for a power-play goal with 2:25 left in the first to tie the game.
After Kilpatrick scored in the second to put the Sea Dogs ahead 3-2, Huberdeau fed a perfect pass in front of the crease to Beaulieu for a power-play goal eight minutes into the third period that put Saint John ahead 4-2.
That goal held up as the winner when Cizikas scored his second of the game 33 seconds later.
Kelly at first didn't want to liken Huberdeau to any stars, but then slipped a little.
"He's got such a high hockey IQ that I don't know that there are a whole lot of limitations on this kid, just because he's such a smart player. His skating's good, (he's) a big strong kid," Kelly said. "So if you look at him coming into junior, he looked a little bit like Eric Staal, yet he's not Eric Staal.
"There's elements of a whole lot of different players. Some nights he looks like Stevie Yzerman. But then he's not Stevie Yzerman. There's a whole bunch of different elements in his game."
He proved that Friday.