Jonathan Huberdeau’s benching overshadows Flames’ comeback win over Predators

CALGARY — When the Calgary Flames scored the first of two empty-net goals in a 6-3 win over the Seattle Kraken on Saturday night, Jonathan Huberdeau couldn’t have looked more relieved. He raised his arms and looked to the heavens in exultation. A six-game losing streak finally came to an end and perhaps happier days were on the horizon for him and his team.

On Tuesday night, as the Flames mounted a third-period comeback against the Nashville Predators, Huberdeau sat on the far right of the Flames’ bench. He had been pinned to his seat for the entirety of the third period. Sportsnet’s camera focused on him a few times in the third, including one shot with his head down visibly disappointed and frustrated.

This game story should be on the Flames’ positives from their 4-2 victory over the Predators. But it is difficult to ignore an $84 million player being benched as his team needed goals and playmaking.

Huberdeau’s teammates and head coach were left answering questions about why the 30-year-old winger didn’t see time in the third period.

“I thought Huby had an off night,” Ryan Huska said. “When we went into the third period, we wanted to try to get a little bit more flow and we went with the guys we felt were going. And that’s pretty much all it came down to.

“It’s not anything anyone wants to go through, ever. But hey, at times it’s going to happen. You’re not going to have your A-plus game every night. As I said, we were trying to find a little bit of rhythm and flow to our game. At that point, we went with the guys who were going the best.”

It’s the latest chapter in an expensive saga that has fallen short of anyone’s expectations, whether it be the Flames or Huberdeau. The winger has just two points in his last seven games and six points in 12 games. He hasn’t looked like himself. He hasn’t been able to complete many passes, let alone plays. He is on the Flames’ top power-play unit but hasn’t delivered at the level expected of him. The Flames were already struggling to find a consistent line for him — something that Huberdeau expressed publicly that he had little concern over.

He started the game on the top line with Elias Lindholm and Dillon Dube. He ended it by being demoted to the bench as the Flames found a way to win a game without him.

Yes, there’s time for him to bounce back. Especially if his teammates have his back like Dube did postgame.

“Huby is the man,” Dube said. “He’s good. The most positive guy I’ve been around. He’s a hell of a player, he’s a hell of a person. It’s fine. It’s one period of his life and of his career. It’s not a big deal. I don’t think anyone’s too worried about it other than we should be. He works his ass off every day. Give him credit, he’ll be here tomorrow with a smile on his face.”

But the optics of him being benched and his team completing a comeback without him don’t look good in isolation. The thing is, Huska wasn’t wrong to bench Huberdeau. Not with his play in this state. And not with so many other players doing well.

One of his team’s positives was Nazem Kadri, who was off to a rocky start with one point in eight games. He has since scored six points on a four-game point streak and has looked more engaged on a line with Connor Zary and Yegor Sharangovich. Kadri even got the primary assist on the game-winning goal from Blake Coleman, making a quick touch pass along the wall to a speeding Coleman who burst through the neutral zone before wiring the puck past Predators goalie Juuse Saros. Each member of Kadri’s line got at least one point.

“I thought his line was the best line on the ice tonight,” Huska said.

And it wasn’t just Kadri who did well. Dube’s goal snapped a seven-game goalless drought. The young players in Zary and Martin Pospisil provided energy and have made the Flames look much better when it comes to skating. Noah Hanifin has goals in back-to-back games. Jacob Markstrom has a win to show for it after a solid night between the pipes.

Unfortunately for Huberdeau, it leaves him all alone when it comes to his struggles. It’s on him and the Flames to fix them. The Flames need to continue putting him in the best possible positions to succeed whether it’s with his current linemates or finding someone who can play with him. But it’s also on Huberdeau to work hard to regain his 2021-22 form or at least some sliver of confidence.

When Darryl Sutter was fired as head coach, his departure was seen as a dark cloud being lifted from the Saddledome. But with Huberdeau, those clouds remain. And perhaps his look at the sky from Saturday night was a bit premature.

(Photo: Sergei Belski / USA Today)

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