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Sea Dogs star Jonathan Huberdeau played his way up NHL draft rankings

MINNEAPOLIS - No talented young prospect forced himself into the NHL Draft conversation this season quite like Jonathan Huberdeau.

The 18-year-old centre had a dazzling campaign, leading the powerhouse Saint John Sea Dogs to a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title and a Memorial Cup, hauling in plenty of individual honours along the way.

Now the playmaking centre from St-Jerome, Que., is being spoken of as a top-five and perhaps even top-three pick on Friday night.

"I gained confidence last year in the playoffs when I ended the season good," Huberdeau said Thursday as the top prospects met with the media at a downtown art museum. "I took that into this season and started playing good.

"I tried to improve my weaknesses (speed, muscle) and my strengths (vision, playmaking) and I think that's why I had a good season."

Huberdeau had 43 goals and 105 points in the regular season, but it was in the playoffs that he really took off.

The six-foot-one, 170-pounder who can play centre or left wing had 16 goals and 14 assists in 19 QMJHL playoff games, then added another three goals and three helpers in four games at the Memorial Cup.

"It started last year in the playoffs when he really took off," Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant said of Huberdeau. ''He was a good player as a 16-year-old last season but when he came into the playoffs he was an outstanding player.

"It just got better month by month by month. He just keeps getting better, playing harder and he's a stronger kid now, getting bigger. That's what you want to see in young kids. He's a character kid and is more confident in himself now. He's like our team. He knows he's a good player and he works hard and gets better."

Huberdeau showed he can play at high speed and both score goals and set up teammates, all without being a defensive liability. Some even compare his game to the heady Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk.

Sea Dogs captain Mike Thomas was certainly impressed.

"Last year he really built his play up and this year he has kind of taken over with the things he does on the ice," said Thomas. "He works so hard and is so smooth with that puck and makes the perfect play.

"He puts it right on the tape (of teammate's stick) or in the back of the net, it doesn't matter. He makes the great play and he makes the right play. It's just phenomenal to watch."

Huberdeau has a lot of his team with him at the draft. NHL Central Scouting has nine Sea Dogs ranked to be picked in the draft, including three others slated to go in the first round — Huberdeau's linemate Zach Phillips, defenceman Nathan Beaulieu and left wing Tomas Jurco.

"That's a lot from one team," said Huberdeau. "It's good. It makes it easier to have a lot of players like that."

Central Scouting's final list had Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the top North American skater with Gabriel Landeskog second and Huberdeau third.

Over the course of the season, he flew past rangy Drummondville Voltigeurs centre Sean Couturier, who was considered the No. 1 prospect, but who dropped to sixth in the end as scouts debated his skating abilities. The International Scouting Service still had Couturier ranked third and Huberdeau seventh, however.

"It's lists, I can't control that," said the six-foot-three Couturier. "Each team has their own list and anything can happen on draft day.

"Once I get drafted I'll still have to prove myself once I get to camp anyway. Everyone has their opinion and thinks their thoughts."