TORONTO -- The 2013 NHL rookie of the year race has settled into a familiar template: a few forwards and defensemen jockeying for position behind one forward leading the Calder Trophy field in points and another leading it in goals.
It was Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Read last season. It was Jeff Skinner and Michael Grabner in 2011. This year, itís Cory Conacher of the Tampa Bay Lightning as the points leader at 23 in 32 games, and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers leading in goals with 12 in 34 games.
A torrid February Ė 6 goals, 3 assists and a rookie of the month honor Ė catapulted Huberdeau to the front of the pack for the Calder. But heís been stuck on 12 goals for weeks: His last tally was on March 8 in an overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
Huberdeauís goal-less streak hit nine games in Tuesday nightís loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the longest drought of his young NHL career.
ďIím not playing my best game. Gotta play better. Gotta have better thinking with the puck. Iím sure itís going to come back, but itís been a few hard games,Ē he said. ďThe third [period] was better. Iím going to build on that third.Ē
Has the 19 year old hit the rookie wall?
ďYou just gotta stay confident. Itís hard when you have a couple of games where youíre not as good," he said. "I donít want to build a wall in front of me."
Panthers Coach Kevin Dineen could relate to the rookieís 9-game goal drought. ďIíve been through those. Itís part of the game. Itís how you react to them more than anything else,Ē he said.
Huberdeau had a three-game assist streak during that goal-less stretch, and another against the Leafs, but is also a minus-8 during that drought.
ďGoals come when you deserve it. I have to work harder,Ē he said in the Panthersí dressing room, following the loss to Toronto. ďBut Iím not worrying about just scoring goals.Ē
Even if scoring goals brings him closer to the Calder.
ďI donít really care. Iím not thinking about that. Iím thinking about the team,Ē he said. ďEven if weíre last, we gotta win some games before the end of the season.Ē
Every answer Huberdeau gives brings the conversation back to the Panthers and their success as a team. Each answer reminds you that Huberdeau made the leap from the Saint John Sea Dogs of Quebec Major Junior to the NHL one year after the Panthers were Southeast Division champions Ė and how his rookie season has been played on a battered, underachieving team that will be back in the lottery this summer.
Injuries have mixed up the Panthersí lineup, and Huberdeau hasnít escaped that. Against the Leafs, he skated with Mike Santorelli and Shawn Matthias; when he scored his last goal vs. the Jets, it was assisted by Drew Shore and Peter Mueller.
ďWe have a lot of injuries. Itís pretty hard for our team," he said. "Itís the young guys that have to step up right now. The guys from the AHL, getting their chances."
ďI donít want to put a lot of pressure on myself. Iím still 19.Ē
Heís 19, but most nights he plays beyond his years. Thatís why despite failing to snap the twine for 18 days, heís building on what he does right in those games. ďYou canít be negative. There are so many games, you canít think about it,Ē he said, noting that the condensed lockout schedule has helped him not dwell on the negatives.
ďItís my first season. I donít know what a real season feels like.Ē
Alas, even if he remains a Calder favorite, he also wonít know what a real NHL Awards ceremony feels like, as the typical Vegas extravaganza is shelved this season.
Like scoring slumps and team struggles, Huberdeau shakes it off.
ďItís hockey. Itís life.Ē