5 things: The usage of Matt Hunwick

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.

But…

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:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 10.44.46 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 10.39.41 AM

Yikes.

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:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 10.57.57 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 11.23.36 AM

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.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Ryan it has taken me a awhile to come around to all of the new analysing of stats as I’m sure it has for most of us fans who have been watching the game for decades. But I think you make a very compelling case regarding a guy closing in on 30.

    Most of us would agree that is the first year of the rebuild and thus experimentation of the current squad will help decide who we want to keep and who maybe should get extra ice time to help sell at the trade deadline.

    I would like to get your opinion as to what the harm would be to give Sparks another game. Just suppose he beats Tampa , well that would be 8 out of 10 points. Why rush Reimer who obviously sufered a set back on his original injury just as Carey Price did. Let Bernier ride the pine for a couple more games. Winnipeg seems to be all gung ho about their latest sensation between the pipes.

    Should Garrit fail badly in a start or two, well there is no harm then to send him back. He has had some successful experience and he seems to be a very level headed guy who the leafs should continue to develop.

  • Mapleleafs75

    I’ve watched about 5-8 games and he’s looked decent to the eye. Fast, good stick, decent head on his shoulders but those numbers do look pretty rough.

    I’m going with ‘there’s no one else that could fill this roll’, especially given the benefit of sheltering Phaneuf (16pts) and the future benefit of developing Gardiner away from Reilly.

  • Mapleleafs75

    The thing I find puzzling watching Hunwick, is why is he the defenseman always pinching when his partner is Reilly? It should be Reilly pinching and Hunwick hanging back as the stay at home d on that line. It seems to me like Reilly’s point production rate has taken a hit too, since being paired with Hunwick.

  • jimithy

    Ryan,

    I think this is a pretty good summary of the data available for Hunwick – and to be honest I don’t disagree with your main conclusion that he isn’t the right ‘level’ of player for that role. However, I think the Leafs’ rationale for him playing the spot that he does IS still logical – it just happens to be about as far away from advanced stats and number crunching as us (quantiatively-minded) stats guys can get: Culture.

    In the end, it comes back to who Hunwick is as a person, how he joined the Leafs (Babcock saw him training his ‘tail’ off), and the impact he has on the team’s culture and approach to the game. He is high integrity, HUGE work ethic player, on and off the ice. Thus – giving Hunwick an A, and putting Hunwick in the position in the D-depth that he is, sends a very strong message to the rest of the team: work hard, put your head down, be accountable, and you will get the minutes. Process over results. That after games, the players need to eat well and rest, and not go drink and party with fans. Which – after the last decade of this team – is a message that I would guess needs to be delivered time and time again.

    To be honest, I think the general fan population under-appreciates the ‘Culture’ concept, but I see it as an area the analytics community can be forward-thinking enough to believe actually means something. And I think a huge part of the Leaf’s turnaround (under Babcock) is the ability to make this new culture a reality.

    PS – I’m curious if you think Hunwick’s usage is still totally ridiculous or if this line of thinking is something you would take seriously… feel free to msg at @OrgSixAnalytics if you want to discuss further.

    Cheers,

    OSA

  • Gary Empey

    What you are implying is through analysing of stats, you know how to coach the team better than Babcock.

    In my opinion analytics are useful but far too much weight is being placed upon the results.

    Your statment ” Roman Polak is awful, but we all knew that” is simply not true.

    • Jerkball

      Roman Polak is sososo bad and it’s shocking that anyone would try to defend him. Slow, bad pinches, awful outlet passes. Go back and watch the penalty Rielly took against the Devils in the 3rd. Look who can’t complete a 20 ft pass to a guy in stride, forcing Rielly to take down Cammalleri: that’s right, your old pal Polak.

      My favourite game to play when watching the Leafs is “Hey, the Leafs have been stuck in their own end for >30 sec, I wonder if Polak is out there?” Spoiler: He always is. Parked in front of the net.

      • Gary Empey

        Hunwick minus eight
        Reilly minus eight

        Phaneuf minus one
        Gardiner zero

        Marincin zero
        Harrington zero

        POLAK PLUS FIVE —He plays over 20 minutes per game. Leads team in blocked shots, and hits. First one Babcock puts out on the penalty kill.

        • Gary Empey

          I did it!

          I found the last person who thinks that +/-, blocked shots, and hits, are relevant statistics!

          Can you please become the GM of an NHL team around the trade deadline?

          If we’re using such worthless statistics, Polak also leads the team in:

          -Giveaways directly leading to shots against
          -Pucks turned over at blueline because of “off-glass-out” dumps
          -Times iced the puck by a Dman
          -Times beaten to the puck in a corner
          -TOI parked uselessly in front of the net
          -Number of highlight-reel James Reimer saves watched/60 minutes of ice time
          -Most time spent in own zone relative to Quality of Competition

  • Bleedblueandwhite

    I think OSA (o6analytics) hit it on the head, Babcock likes Hunwick for his work effort and as a person, couple with protecting Gardner and Phaneuf – each of whom have improved.

    HUnwick is not a top pairing dman, but the alternatives are less attractive, for the future or for trade bait. And as I saw in Detroit, Babcock is very loyal to guys that work hard and are “good professionals”. Look at Jonathon Ericsson on the wings, a convert centerman (draft at least), he’s been getting top pair minutes with Kronwall until this year, but beyond Ericsson’s size (his best skill), he’s a serviceable player – but not a top pairing d-man. With Mike Green signing, Ericsson has finally been moved down.

  • STAN

    First, I agree with @Gary Empey that Roman Polak is not awful.

    Second, Ryan answers his own questions in the third to last paragraph when he speculates “…none of this matters because it’s more important to protect assets in which the Leafs have an actual long-term investment.”

    And, “…No. 1 defenseman Matt Hunwick? Come on, no one’s buying that.”

    And so? Babcock has put his most mature, hardworking D man with Morgan Rielly, their putative number one D-man of the future. This makes perfect sense to me.

    Hunwick’s smarts and integrity (as noted by @o6analytics) are far better than the barely cogent, cliche-spilling, slow-of-foot Dion Phaneuf.

    So it serves multi-purposes – get Rielly away from Phaneuf, let Phaneuf face weaker competition perhaps enticing some team to come calling and, yes, keep the Leafs near the bottom of the pack for better draft picks.

  • MacTwoTimes

    To me it makes sense that maybe Babcock is trying to play guys that have a future with the team in the role he sees them ending up in. Reilly on the top pair, Phaneuf (let’s face it, he’s probably here til his contract ends) on the second pair along with Gardiner, Corrado locked in the basement, Marincin and Harrington on the bottom pair/bench, and Polak getting ice time hoping someone coughs up a mid round pick. The odd guy out is Hunwick so he gets buried in tough minutes because it doesn’t really matter if he can handle it right now or what happens to his career…

  • Mapleleafs75

    His numbers are good considering he played against top competition and goaltending was underwhelming earlier in the season. defensively only riley or phaneuf would be better against top stars. Dion has more offensive game against lesser competition. Good management decision. Hunwick is top 4 on leafs right now

  • Mapleleafs75

    Hunwick hasn’t looked that bad to me. Those numbers are pretty bad though. The only explanation I guess is that babcock likes him and there’s no one else to fill the role as another commented said. Gardiner and Reilly is the best combination but babcock has said why doesn’t want that. Phaneuf would also get caved in. Maybe less than hunwick. Polak would do far worse. Polak was atrocious to start the year. He’s gotten better in recent weeks but still looks like the worst player playing on defense. That leaves marincin/Harrington/corrado, and you risk development problems and potentially not even getting an improvement by putting them there.

  • Mapleleafs75

    It could also be as simple as him being a place holder. Babcock might see how he wants the rest of his top six to shake out, but is like I want a top 2 defenseman, for now it will be Hunwick.

  • MacTwoTimes

    hunwick looked great with the eye test in the beginning but he’s been a trainwreck looking with the eye test by game #10. he wanders a lot, him and rielly seem to have 0 communication and he often pinches unnecessarily to the point where rielly is the only defenceman defending against a 2 on 1 or 3 on 1… he’s way above his head. oh well. this is respectable tanking where you don’t know if it’s on purpose or not. rielly is getting kills which sucks.

    • Kanuunankuula

      I question whether it’s “deliberate tanking” as people claim. Who would be better in that spot? Gardiner? Why break up the Gards/Phaneuf pairing?

      Hunwick is clearly the 4th best defenseman on the team, after Rielly/Phaneuf/Gardiner. He’s also, arguably, the best one on the defensive side of the puck.

      Babcock wants Rielly to get used to playing against tough competition, and also wants to shield Phaneuf. The result? Rielly gets Hunwick to take on the Crosbys of the world.

      I actually think Hunwick could have a long-term future with the Leafs, as a third-pairing guy behind Rielly, Gardiner, and two others. Maybe he and Phaneuf even form the third pairing a few years down the road.

  • Jerkball

    good article. ive wondered why hunwick gets so much ice when hes clearly outclassed out there. it has to be something along the line of protecting other assets for trade and maintaining our place in draft lottery. hes regularly beaten one on one or directly responsible for goals against. ultimatly we lack the talent now to be top team, lets continue loose this seanon, stockpile the picks and take run at stamkos next year. kadri jvr stamkos nylander marner, komorvo, plus another top pick, thats solid group fowards.