As Jonathan Huberdeau goes in 2023-24, so do the Calgary Flames

Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
8 months ago
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Things didn’t go particularly well, or anywhere resembling according to plan, for the Calgary Flames in 2022-23. Coming off a tumultuous off-season that saw three significant players in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk depart, hopes remained high for the club because of the arrival of Nazem Kadri, MacKenzie Weegar and Jonathan Huberdeau.
The hopes weren’t lived up to, as the three new Flames experienced growing pains during their first season in Calgary.
Of the three, the one that experienced the most challenges was undoubtedly Huberdeau.
Kadri got off to a decent enough start to the season, but over time it seemed like he hadn’t fully recovered from the physical toll his run to the Stanley Cup the prior spring with Colorado had taken on him. Weegar gradually figured out his niche, and his last 25-to-30 games saw him really find his footing. But Huberdeau, entering a team dynamic where he was ostensibly replacing one (or both) of Gaudreau or Tkachuk, never really found his footing.
And for whatever reason, Huberdeau was a riddle that the Flames’ coaching staff just couldn’t figure out a way to solve. They tried playing him on the top line with Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli. After he missed a few games due to a lingering injury, they tried getting him up to speed with their systems alongside Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman. Failing that, he spent the better part of three months playing on his off-wing, the right side, where he had virtually never, ever played during his NHL career.
Surprisingly enough, in a season where he (a) experienced the biggest off-ice change of his career and (b) frequently saw his role changed as he bounced around the Flames’ lineup, Huberdeau had a pretty bad season from a production standpoint with just 55 points (after registering 115 the season prior). His personal shooting percentage dropped by nearly a full percent and his on-ice shooting percentage also cratered… all despite Huberdeau (and his linemates throughout the season) having pretty effective underlying numbers. In short: neither Huberedeau nor his linemates scored very often when he was on the ice, and the player admitted in his post-season chat with the media that he’d lost his swagger.
Long story short: Huberdeau was the key to getting the 2022-23 Flames working. And because the Flames’ coaching staff couldn’t figure him out, the entire season was basically a wash because they were constantly moving him around, changing his role, and occasionally making ill-timed quips about his gastrointestinal health.
But if Huberdeau was one of the big reasons why the 2022-23 Flames didn’t work, he could also be one of the big reasons why the 2023-24 version succeeds. This season will be the first year of Huberdeau’s eight-year, $84 million extension with the Flames, the single biggest contract in franchise history. After a season where things quite simply didn’t go well for Huberdeau, there’s a new general manager (Craig Conroy), a new head coach (Ryan Huska), a new assistant coach running the power play (Marc Savard) and a Hall of Fame special advisor (Jarome Iginla) who knows a thing or two about scoring goals. If nothing else, there are resources in place to help maximize Huberdeau that weren’t around a year ago in the same way.
For as long as I’ve covered the Flames, you could usually tell how the team was going to perform in a particular game based on how their breakouts from their own zone unfolded. If they were clunky, you were in for a long night. In a more macro sense, we’ll be able to tell how the 2023-24 season is going to go for the Flames based on how Huberdeau performs early on.
In short: Huberdeau will likely be the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the club. If he’s struggling, look out. But if he’s found a way to adjust and rediscover his swagger, this coming season could be quite interesting.

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