Recapping my pre-season predictions: ‘Jacob Markstrom and Jonathan Huberdeau bounce back’

Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Middleton
19 days ago
The name of the game for the Calgary Flames heading into 2023-24 was about not only finding new weapons to place throughout the lineup in the form of newer, younger faces, but it was also about finding a way to put the more veteran faces on the right track. Whether or not the Flames made the playoffs or not wasn’t important. Instead, the focus of the season, especially toward the beginning, was watching the players being paid lots of money and, most importantly, making sure that money was well spent.
Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom were the two biggest under-performers from the 2022-23 season. But those seasons didn’t feel characteristic of their abilities, especially for Markstrom. So, I decided to put my faith in them with the risk of writing an article at some point in the off-season about how I was wrong. Fortunately, I was not, and I’m able to write this article instead.

Prediction: Jacob Markstrom and Jonathan Huberdeau bounce back

Result: Correct

If the Flames were to try and find any inkling of success, it would be on the back of a return to form by big-name players. I already covered Nazem Kadri’s resurgence, and now everything is about the highest-paid forward on the squad and one of the best goaltenders in the league.
Markstrom’s down season in 2022-23 wasn’t what anyone expected to see following a 2021-22 season in which he finished with a .922 save percentage, nine shutouts, and came second in Vezina Trophy voting only behind Igor Shesterkin, who had a historic season in net for the New York Rangers. But it happened. He finished with a sub-.900 save percentage, and even if you tuned into a game without knowing how well Markstrom had been performing, it was easy to see he was struggling. When the team was scoring, the big Swede would let in terrible goals on a consistent basis. And when they weren’t scoring, he ended up being on the wrong side of a goal or two, which resulted in a loss.
In summary, he wasn’t able to be the difference maker everyone expected him to be.
However, he knew he had to be better, and proved it in 2023-24. In 48 games played, he jumped his save percentage up to .905 from .892 the prior year, brought his goals against average down to 2.78 from 2.92, and, according to Evolving-Hockey, went from 1.5 goals saved above expected (GSAx) in 2022-23 to 28.93 (!!!) in 2023-24. For reference, his performance last season in GSAx was the seventh-best of any goaltender in those two seasons and third among goaltenders in 2023-24.
He took a huge leap, and it’s really unfortunate that the team in front of him took a major dive and were unable to protect him from being shelled in most of the games he took to the blue paint.
As for Huberdeau, his case is a bit more interesting.
If one were to simply look at the box score, it would be easy to deduce that Huberdeau was worse in 2023-24 than he was in 2022-23. His point total dropped from 55 in 79 games played to 52 in 81 games played. Not having the fanfare of a 60-point drop-off between seasons helps to make everything go under the radar a bit more. However, there are some major caveats that I believe have set Huberdeau up on the list of bounce-back candidates for this Flames team.
The first caveat is Huberdeau’s shooting percentage. In 2022-23, his shooting percentage was 11.9, which is in the vicinity of his career average. He scored 15 goals and tallied 40 assists. But in 2023-24, his shooting percentage dipped to 8.4, which is well below his career average. He finished with the same number of assists but scored three fewer goals in 2023-24. And if there’s anything that learning about hockey statistics and trends has taught me, it’s that a shooting percentage that low is more likely to regress back to the mean than not.
The second caveat for Huberdeau’s bounce-back is the number of points he registered since the start of the new year. Every Flames fan on the internet has heard this argument a lot by now, so I won’t go on too long, but his 36 points in 45 games since January 1 would put him on a 65-point pace for a full season, and, once again, that’s with a shooting percentage still below his career average after the new year. Are those the numbers anyone wants to see, given the amount of money owed to him? No. But it’s certainly an improvement and a bounce-back from what we saw in 2022-23.
And, finally, watching the games, it was clear that there was a confidence to Huberdeau that he had not exuded in a Flames uniform the season prior. Especially after the addition of Andrei Kuzmenko to the fold, he was making tons of creative passes and holding the puck for an extra second to create lanes.
Some of the passes he made in the back half of the season were simply absurd, which is why the Flames signed him to such a big contract in the first place.
Here’s another fantastic one in the Battle of Alberta with Dryden Hunt of all players on the receiving end of it:
And, finally, here’s the crux of the issue for Huberdeau. While it does look like he’s playing with more swagger (I think it’s hard to disagree with that point given the kind of plays he was making), the lack of finishing talent around him has shorted him plenty of assists. This play here is a perfect example, where a cross-seam pass to a wide-open Hunt found him fire the puck wide and miss a golden opportunity:
So, all this to say, head coach Ryan Huska seems to have found something that works with Huberdeau. Now, general manager Craig Conroy needs to give Huberdeau players around him who can finish on the chances he creates.
Huberdeau still has a long way to go in other facets of the game, but if he can continue to ramp up his offensive game, which is what he’s being paid to do, it will be easier to reconcile the contract, even though he will likely never be “worth it” in the end.
While Markstrom’s bounce-back is much more easily seen in the box score statistics than having to dig through Huberdeau’s game logs and highlights to see a tangible difference in how he plays, both of these players found their way back on the right track. They’re still at slightly different paces, but as far as a bounce-back for their play on the ice and production, last season was a step in the right direction.
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