1. What’s going on?
A quick look at the Leafs’ ice time alone this season notes an interesting development: Mike Babcock, widely considered one of the smartest coaches in hockey, is using Matt Hunwick as a top-pairing defenseman.
This is, I think we’d all agree, not a particularly ideal situation. The 22:28 he’s playing every night exceeds the 21:31 that was his previous high (in the lockout-shortened season with Colorado) and it otherwise more about 2.25 minutes per night higher than his career average. And so you have to ask: What’s the thinking here?
Because by any conventional standard, Matt Hunwick is not the guy you would use as your team’s No. 1 defenseman, even if you’re as bad as Toronto, and even if you think he’s particularly well-suited to playing with a somewhat-deserving No. 2 in Morgan Rielly. And sure, using him there also gives you the freedom to move Dion Phaneuf, your captain who was probably always miscast as a top-pairing shut-down D, to the second group where he’s probably in a much better position to succeed.
Whether that’s worth his contract is another discussion entirely, of course, but when you’re cash-rich, miles below the cap, and accepting that you’re going to be awful for a few years, I guess the reasonable response to the concerns of whether your captain is earning his massive contract is, “Who cares?”
Any way you want to divide things up, the Leafs’ D corps is very weird. Rielly and Jake Gardiner can clearly just Play, which is never going to be a bad thing. Phaneuf, again, isn’t bad in his new role. Roman Polak is awful, but we all knew that. Scott Harrington and Martin Marincin are splitting time as the last defenseman and that all checks out, logically.
2. Back to Hunwick
BUT this Hunwick usage is just about impossible to justify, except through the lens of “We’re trying not to be very good.” This is qualitatively different than, “We’re not trying to be very good,” which implies a kind of laissez-faire attitude to whether you lose every night. The Leafs’ usage of Hunwick suggests they are actively trying to lose.
At no point in his career has Hunwick ever been used like this. Nor, frankly, should he have been. Here’s his usage by year, sorted with his best corsi-for performances at the top:
What stands out to you? A pretty close correlation between low-CF% and low-OZS%? Yeah, correct. Again, this is nothing revelatory; even if you didn’t have the numbers to present, no rational observer of the NHL would say Hunwick is a guy you should be using in a shutdown role. But these numbers are pretty stark anyway.
And just to frame it in terms of the traditional “Usage Chart” pioneered by now-Leafs employee and Extra Skater creator Darryl Metcalf:
This is Babcock giving a guy who, charitably, is maybe a No.5 defenseman on a decent team No. 1 minutes and competition/own-zone starts in no way commensurate with his on-ice abilities. It’s no wonder he has the worst CF% on the Leafs, but it goes beyond that.
3. Historically bad
And again, Hunwick is a guy who has clearly been around for a long time, and is therefore very much a known quantity. Which is why none of this makes any sense at all.
He’s posting career worsts, or close to it, in the following categories:
That is a player getting completely run over by any measure, and even if you say his 98.8 PDO indicates a guy who’s been pretty unlucky, it’s not unlucky in the Nazem Kadri “This has to turn around!” way seen earlier this year. He’s just getting caved in every time he’s on the ice.
And you can see it. Tune into any Leafs game and your takeaway is going to range from “Hunwick doesn’t look horrible tonight” to “Get Hunwick off the goddamn ice!” I’ve watched enough Toronto games at this point — certainly not all of them, but let’s say 10 or so — to understand that something very strange is going on here.
It’s at the point where I feel like I have to be missing something. The Leafs are a smart organization, and Babcock is quite shrewd. So there has to be something that’s sneaking through which would be reflected in the numbers.
But no! Among other Toronto defensemen, when Hunwick is on the ice, the Leafs get the fewest: shot attempts per 60 (50.2), high-quality chances per 60 (10.0), shots on goal per 60 (25.4), goals per 60 (1.2).
And they also allow the most: shot attempts per 60 (59.7), high-quality chances per 60 (11.1), and shots on goal per 60 (32.4).
The only one of these categories in which Hunwick has something other than the worst number on the team is goals against per 60. His is a little less than 2, and that’s well back of Morgan Rielly’s 2.5. But he’s Rielly’s D partner, so…?
And here’s the other weird thing: This has been his usage pretty much all year, despite the fact that he gets crushed night in and night out.
4. Trying to think
Here’s what I can think of as legitimate rationales here:
- a) The Leafs are gonna get run over against top competition regardless of who is on the first pairing, so you might as well use Hunwick in that role and maybe hope someone sees him have a few good games and trades for him?
- b) They’d rather a guy in whom they have minimal investment get run over like this instead of someone like Gardiner or Phaneuf, especially if they’re looking to offload that Phaneuf contract?
- c) They are, again, trying to lose?
- d) The universe has lost its damn mind?
I can’t come up with too many besides this that don’t get JFK-like in their conspiracy theorizing. You can’t watch these results and feel like this is acceptable, especially because he’s basically dragging down the Leafs’ performances single-handed. They’ve given up 16 goals at 5-on-5 with Hunwick on the ice this season. That’s more than 38 percent of the total 42 they’ve allowed, but in less than 37 percent of the ice time. Things could be worse in that regard, but compare him to Gardiner, who’s gotten a little more than 36 percent of the ice time, but only given up 33 percent of the goals.
5. An understanding
Look, the Leafs were always going to be bad this season, so maybe you say none of this matters because it’s more important to protect assets in which the Leafs have an actual long-term investment. He’s 30 and he’s never been a particularly useful NHLer. He’s fine and that’s about it, in the best circumstances.
But even if we accept that this is a tank job, which I don’t think you can rule out, there have to be better or at least less obvious ways to do it, right?
I mean, No. 1 defenseman Matt Hunwick? Come on, no one’s buying that.