Flames’ Huberdeau Struggling to Adapt to Sutter’s Systems

When it was announced that the Calgary Flames had signed Jonathan Huberdeau to an eight-year, $84 million deal with an average annual value of $10.5 million, the only concern some had were in regard to the final few years of the deal. What absolutely no one could have possibly imagined, however, was that it may turn into a bad deal before it even kicks in.

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It has been a major struggle for the 29-year-old, who, coming off of a career-high 115-point season, has just five goals and 18 points through his first 27 games with his new team. Of those 18 points, only nine have come at even strength, a true testament to how bad he has been for his standards thus far. In fact, it is fair to question if he has even been worth the $5.9 million he is commanding this season.

Run & Gun No More

The biggest issue in Huberdeau’s game right now seems to be a change of systems. Switching from one team to another can take some players time to adjust, but that doesn’t appear to be the full issue here. Instead, it is something that many believed Johnny Gaudreau may struggle with also, which happens to be playing under head coach Darryl Sutter.

Jonathan Huberdeau Calgary Flames
Jonathan Huberdeau, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It quickly was forgotten about after Gaudreau put up a career-best 115-points a season ago, but back when Sutter was first hired, many were concerned about how the undersized winger would perform moving forward. After all, the reigning Jack Adams Award winner is known to be very strict in his defensive schemes, oftentimes not allowing top-end talent to take risks in order to create offense.

Gaudreau seemed to relish under that type of system, however, improving both his offensive and defensive play. For Huberdeau, that hasn’t been the case. Analytically speaking, his defensive play has been much better than in seasons prior with the Panthers, but his offense has taken a major hit. And, while you can respect him trying to round out his entire game for his new bench boss, general manager Brad Treliving gave him the $84 million extension expecting him to continue as one of the league’s best producers.

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As far as switching from one system to another, there is arguably no bigger transition than going from last year’s Florida Panthers to a Sutter-coached Flames team. The Panthers last season under Andrew Brunette were a run-and-gun team, one which allowed its players to take plenty of risks in order to create offense. With that, of course, also resulted in plenty of grade-A scoring chances against, and played a big part in their postseason struggles.

The issue for the Panthers, however, was that they seemed to play that system as a team, giving seemingly their entire roster the leash to take chances, rather than just a few of its top offensive stars. Perhaps what Sutter and the Flames need to change is giving a few players, Huberdeau in particular, a bit of leash to be more creative on the ice.

Darryl Sutter Head Coach of the Calgary Flames
Darryl Sutter, Head Coach of the Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In all honesty, however, the chances of that happening seem rather slim. Sutter has always been known for his extreme stubbornness, sometimes to a fault. In one sense, you can understand where he is coming from in his approach, given that he has Stanley Cup rings to back it up. In another, the game is evolving, and this Flames roster is much different than the one he had years ago with the Los Angeles Kings. Allowing certain players to open things up a bit may be something worth giving a shot, as a 13-11-6 record through 30 games is far from what many believed this current team was capable of.

Plenty of Onus on Huberdeau Himself

While the relationship between Sutter and Huberdeau hasn’t seemed to mesh well just yet, it isn’t fair to put this all on the Flames coach. As mentioned, he had the exact same systems just a season ago, systems in which Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and several others were able to thrive and set new career highs.

An interesting thing that many noted when the Flames lost Gaudreau and shortly after added Huberdeau, was that the two were a very comparable swap in that they play the game in very similar fashion. If a player like Gaudreau was able to get things done under Sutter, there is no reason that Huberdeau shouldn’t be as well. Again, it is early, but he knew the pressure he was putting on himself signing the lucrative deal he did, and he needs to find a way to start living up to it.

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