What does Toronto look like without Matt Hunwick?

Matt Hunwick is kind of like the NHL-level equivalent of a rent-a-player. He plays a lot, but mostly because he’s willing to and physically can, not because he’s exceptionally talented. Today, it was announced Hunwick was shut down for the rest of the season with a sports hernia injury. Frankly, Toronto might be better off without him.

There’s a lot of things to like about Hunwick- he’s an assistant captain, praised as a good leader by his teammates, and brings a veteran presence to a young team. But Hunwick might be the worst regular player on the team, and with the Leafs currently being at the bottom of the NHL standings, he’s probably in consideration for the bottom few percentage points of NHL talent in the league. And yet, he’s not just a regular – he’s picked up the second most ice time on the team at 5v5 this year, less than only Morgan Rielly, his most common defensive partner. 

With Hunwick out of the lineup, the Leafs lose a TOI monster. But looking at how the team performs without Hunwick, that might not be the worst thing for a team on a five-game slide. Of course, wins at this point don’t matter much as the Leafs are draft lottery-bound, but from a purely statistical standpoint, Hunwick’s absence makes the Leafs a far better hockey team.

Hunwick’s Inexplicable Usage

There’s a fairly frequent, recurring debate on Twitter about why Hunwick gets played so much. He’s currently clocking in at 22:34 of ice time a night in all situations, over four minutes above his career average. That’s a little over a period a game. Hunwick isn’t a spectacular player in the stats column (fancy or traditional) and doesn’t have a reputation around the league as a shutdown defender. He’s never really been used as a top D-man before this season.

Some theorize head coach Mike Babcock likes Hunwick and legitimately thinks he’s a good defenceman.

Others think he’s just a stopgap guy with experience in a lost season. Some even think the Leafs are intentionally playing Hunwick as much as possible as a subtle tanking maneuver.  

In reality, we don’t really know why Hunwick was played as much as he is with Toronto – there’s no one clear answer. What is clear is that he was just not very good in his role this season with the Leafs. Or he was perfect at it, depending on what the Leafs want from him.

The Hunwick-less Leafs

I made this chart looking at a few different statistical categories and how Hunwick stacks up on the ice, compared to how the Leafs do when he’s off the ice.

Hunwick
Leafs

(including Hunwick)

Leafs

(without Hunwick)

Shots 

(For/Against, SF%)

496/593 

(45.5 %, 30th)

1526/1569 

(49.3%, 18th)

1030/976

(51.3 %, 11th)

Goals 

(For/Against, GF%)

29/47

(38.1%, 30th)

98/123 

(44.4 %, 28th)

69/76

(47.6%, 20th)

Corsi 

(For/Against, CF%)

974/1087

 (47.2%, 28th)

3024-2828

 (51.7%, 10th)

2050/ 1741

(54.0 %, 2nd)

(All stats at 5v5 – via war-on-ice.com & stats.hockeyanalysis.com. For the ‘Hunwick’ column, the ranking indicates where Hunwick’s numbers would be if he was an NHL team. For example, his Corsi For % matches up with Arizona, the 28th ranked NHL team.)

Hunwick’s offensive zone starts compared to his defensive zone ones come at a 306/408 rate, while the Leafs themselves come at a 1009/1010 raw count, which is much more even. Hunwick hasn’t been gifted with great easiness on his shifts either, putting in the hardest competition on the Leafs regulars with his opponents averaging a 50.85% CF%. 

That much being said, nothing Hunwick’s done has suggested he’s capable of playing in this role on a competitive team. Either the Leafs are using him as much as they are because Babcock truly believes he’s doing good things, or management is pushing for heavy Hunwick minutes to get the best possible draft position.

Every other regular Leafs defender comes in at least a 50.1 CF%. Except for Hunwick, who’s at least three points lower than every one of his teammates. 

Here’s another quick chart Corsi For % of defensive partners when they play with and without Hunwick. 

With Hunwick Without Hunwick
Rielly (735 minutes) 47.8 54.2
Phaneuf  (119 minutes) 44.3 52.0
Polak (117 minutes) 39.6 50.4
Gardiner (49 minutes) 53.8 54.0

There are a few things you can infer from this chart.

A) Even in a short sample size, Jake Gardiner is a possession wizard and once again proves his ability to drag teammates along with him (which also can be shown by Dion Phaneuf’s 53.2 CF% with Gardiner and 48.8 CF % without).

B) Polak and Hunwick together are quite predictably bad.

C) Morgan Rielly really needs to get away from Hunwick.

It’s obviously not black and white why Hunwick plays so much, and coaching an NHL team isn’t just a matter of selecting a set amount of ice time for players and letting them play. But the numbers themselves are pretty jarring – the Leafs are much, much better in the approximately two-thirds of the game that Hunwick doesn’t play than when he does.

Looking at the various categories, the Leafs would be about six-eight NHL teams better if they used a team average player instead of Hunwick for all his minutes- with their goal differential increasing by 14 when rated for time on ice. 

But most shockingly, when Hunwick isn’t on the ice, they’re the second-best possession team in the entire league, behind only the Los Angeles Kings. So maybe the last-placed Leafs aren’t really all that awful? Maybe they just give an extremely large amount of ice time to an aging, very below-average defenceman- and in those other 38 minutes a night is where they compete.

The calculations themselves aren’t perfect, as we’re making some pretty big assumptions here (while not diving heavily into zone starts, quality of competition, etc). Obviously, you can’t just remove a player from the lineup and assume everything else will work out in the future like it has in the past. But regardless of its imperfections, one thing is clear – Hunwick this year was performing on a level so much lower than the rest of his team.

Conclusions

Was Hunwick single-handedly making the Leafs bad this season? No. Is he fit for a first-pairing role? No. Was he playing parts of this year injured? Maybe. But would acquiring a top-4 defender (or even finding one within the system) and taking Hunwick’s roster spot away significantly increase the Leafs’ quality? I wouldn’t rule it out. 

It might sound insane, but it’s not out of this world to think that if the Leafs simply rid themselves of Hunwick in the offseason for even an average player and allocate his minutes in a smart fashion, they could be competing for a playoff spot as early as next season. It’ll be interesting to see how the Leafs play the rest of the year without him, as this may validate or disprove the theory.

If the management regime looks for another Corrado or Marincin-type castoff in the offseason, or even finds someone within the system (Loov? Stuart Percy?) and takes Hunwick out of the lineup, that would be a smart move once the Leafs decide they’re ready to start competing. There’s obviously still quite a few holes in the roster to fill, but if Mike Babcock can coach the large majority of his players to be a great possession team, there’s no reason why he can’t replicate that success next season.

Once Hunwick’s time with the Leafs comes to an end, he’ll almost certainly be forgotten pretty quickly. Perhaps last night was his last night as an on-ice Leaf. But as a tank asset as the Leafs pushed for a spot in the NHL lottery, he might’ve just been the greatest one in the league this year.

  • magesticRAGE

    This raises the question: why exactly did the Leafs sign him to a two-year contract as a free agent? My guess is that they imagined him playing in a third pairing role, but Babcock took to him and gave him more and more minutes. But it seems the idea of signing him as a depth defenseman was flawed in the first place – why have a thirty year old journeyman play those minutes when you could bring up Percy or Loov or Harrington (and now Corrado or Carrick)?

    • magesticRAGE

      when they signed him the Leafs didn’t have corrado or carrick,and they weren’t sure that Percy, Loov, or Harrington could be full time nhl players this year. And since you don’t want rush their development you get a veteran guy who you could eventually trade.

    • magesticRAGE

      I think Babcock requested him because of his character, and his off-ice habits and work ethic. He became a Leaf because Babcock wanted him to rub off on Reilly; Phaneuf to influence Gardiner.
      I agree though, I’d rather see Loov get Hunwick’s roster spot next season, and Harrington to get Marincin’s spot as well.

  • magesticRAGE

    I really like Carrick. He ought to be a top four guy next season.

    Still, Hunwick’s presence wouldn’t hurt for one more season (or two thirds if they send him packing in February).

    Another top 10 draft pick after 2016-17, plus having Auston Matthews with a full season under his Maple Leafs belt, would go a long way to being REALLY good.

    • Gary Empey

      What he said.

      It’s amazing to me how some of you guys can write thousands of words (including a lot of numbers) and completely miss the point – the guy was put in defensive situations almost exclusively. The same goes for Polak. If Rilley was without Hunwik it’s because he was on the ice with Gardiner 6 on 5 to get a goal. There’s no way Gardiner or Rielly could match up against top lines in defensive situations or on the PK, let alone the kids that are still in the minors.

      We needed Hunwick this year and we’ll probably need him next year as well especially now that we’ve lost Polak and Phaneuf. Somebody has to defend. It’s nice to have high-flying mobile defenders that can skate the puck out but sometimes you are facing a defensive zone face off and Towes or Crosby are taking it, Thorton or Perry crashing the net, and all you have is Kadri. Harrington or Gardiner just don’t cut it in those situations. Neither does Hunwick, but someone has to do it, someone willing to risk injury and take the cross checks. That’s what the guy did for us so we could buy the kids a little more time to beef up, so that we could shelter Phaneuf and make him look like a ‘Corsica monster’ and so the kids could see what it takes to play defence in the NHL.

      Hunwick earned himself an injury for playing right and hard and helping this team’s ‘blueprint’ and the least you could do is give him a little respect and consider some evidence that doesn’t support your narrative in return. He definitely earned every penny of his two-year contract even if he never plays again.

      • Kanuunankuula

        Jesus christ, is time for QoC-talk again? Does not matter during the whole season, the effect is extemely minimal (can’t line match all the time). It does not explain Hunwick’s poor results, like it never did with Dion.

        Also you people are delusional if you think Gardiner can’t do what Hunwick has done. Gardiner is hands down our best D-man, and comparing league-wide is pretty good as well.

        My biggest issue with Hunwick in addition to being really slow on his thought process, is that he is always pinching. If you’re played with ‘future offensive D-man star’ Morgan Rielly, you stay back and let him do his thing. With that pairing it’s backwards. Hunwick pinches and Rielly has to cover him, and is always on 2-on-1s because Hunwick made a retarded play in the O-zone.

        Look for Rielly’s stats to rise now when he’s with Marincin. Maricin at least knows he’s not a offensive wizard. Should compliment Rielly well.

        Hunwick was used as sacrificial lamb for the team, he ate the minutes and looked bad.

      • Gary Empey

        hunwick often piches way too deep in the offensive zone and leaves rielly and his goalie out to dry defending odd man rushes at least three times a game. he’s overmatched and shouldn’t be on the top pairing. he’s a bottom pairing defender who plays well vs the weakest competition. hunwick is exposed defensively more than any other defender. I often see him behind the damn net like he’s Gretzky!!! rielly is always the only one back because he’s smart enough to pick the right times to pinch and be in position. he’s a disaster. can’t say I’ll miss seeing him. id rather see loov or Percy up. they’re positionally sound.

  • FlareKnight

    Defense will be better. Interesting theory. Sees the top pairing as Marincin-Rielly….yeah sure.

    You can write the longest article possible, but that fact completely debunks the argument. No matter the flaws Hunwick has, it means nothing in comparison to the guy who’s bungled defense literally cost the Leafs games during this losing streak.

    From a tanking perspective though it’s great.

  • FlareKnight

    more sick-minded thoughts from a journalist wanna-be.
    ‘Critics’ who couldn’t carry the sticks for an NHL player, write sadistic words after the guy is injured. What do have against the guy? Did he sleep with our wife, and your kids look like him? And just who the hell do you think you are, questioning the coach? What a jerk.