Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SPORTS
We’re hours away from the puck being dropped on the third game of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ regular season, and Matt Hunwick will once again dress. This has many Leafs fans a little dumbfounded and quite disappointed, as more viable alternatives appear to be available to them. Maybe not Roman Polak, who people were shocked to see even get a contract with the team in July, but at the very least, Frank Corrado being in purgatory for the start of a second consecutive year seems a little odd.
It’s not so much that Hunwick is a bad hockey player, per se; he just doesn’t appear to be getting the same results to justify being slotted in over others.
With that in mind, I tried to think of some reason, any reason why you’d opt for the status quo. Here’s all I’ve got so far.
Finding Mo’s Comfort Zone: During the offseason, we waxed poetic about shot handedness. Playing on your correct side, after all, is key to helping control the flow of play (unless you’re Jake Gardiner, in which case you can play anywhere, apparently). When the year started, though, we began to hear about Morgan Rielly being comfortable on his off-side, hence his pairing with Martin Marincin on opening night.
That lasted about half a period in the first game. Since then, the pair has stuck together, but the two have switched sides. Not shocking on Mo’s part, given that he’s a high-event player that gives up a lot of shots, but why continue to keep it going if the purpose is no longer being served? Okay, we can rule this one out.
Penalty Kill Help: An initial thought that one might have is that Hunwick, while not the best at even strength, might be a player who can help you out a bit on the penalty kill, where you’re expected to be in your own zone as it stands. But that’s not quite the case: Hunwick has given up approximately 85 attempted shots per hour on the penalty kill since the beginning of last season, more than any Leafs defenceman that has played any degree of shorthanded minutes. He does get in the way of some, but was still second-last in his rate unblocked shot attempts against, and bottom three in shots on goal and scoring chance against rates. He was also the Leaf most likely to take a second penalty while killing the current one off.
A Secret Talent: There had to be something that could be quantified, right? After all, “good in the room” could probably be done as a healthy scratch and there’s nothing in his eyeball game that looks like it carries an unquantifiable factor. He doesn’t fight enough to “change momentum”, he’s a frequent enough hitter but not to the point of intimidation, and your typical Matt Hunwick shot block visually looks more like an “oh, he didn’t make it on time” more so than an “oh, he’s fearless”. He’s not overly chatty with the refs, so unless there really is something the cameras and the are entirely missing, it’s safe to assume there’s a hockey quality.
If there is, I can’t find it. The team gives up more shots when he’s on the ice. They take fewer of them. He’s not much better at keeping the puck out of scoring chance areas, and he hasn’t even had percentages bail him out much, finishing bottom-3 in goals against per hour at even strength. he doesn’t produce a ton of points individually, and his own attempts to throw the puck on net don’t often lead to goals, save for this preseason. He takes a ton of penalties, and all of this is while playing pretty luke-warm minutes as far as where he begins his shifts or who he plays against. Frankly, there isn’t really a common metric that I can find that makes Matt Hunwick look like an effective player over the past year and change.
Nikita’s Tutor: At this point, you start to look outside the box. Nikita Zaitsev, who Hunwick is paired with presently, appears to have transitioned swimmingly to the North American game. He’s very calm and intelligent with the puck, and seems to be a touch “grittier” than most play-driving defencemen away from it.
With that in mind, maybe the team is hoping that a couple of games with Hunwick will give him some time to transfer some of his more physical abilities to the NHL? The hope is that Zaitsev is a more talented, more mobile, and more capable player, but if he has the capacity to do those types of extra things when he needs to, it certainly couldn’t hurt. Ideally, though, this training course won’t last 82 games.
Trade Bait: On the flip side, maybe the hope is that playing with Zaitsev, a very good defenceman who isn’t really seen as such by the community at large, will help Hunwick look better in the opening weeks? Saturday night wasn’t exactly flattering to him, but if the two can string together some good appearances, a team looking for a depth defenceman might see it as the veteran helping the kid and not the other way around and come calling. Hunwick doesn’t particularly need to be moved from a cap perspective, but the extra million and change could help with further moves and cutting the roster down by an extra player gives some wiggle room as well.
Expansion Bait: Perhaps the Leafs are aiming to ensure that Hunwick is expansion eligible? Presently, he needs 10 games to qualify under the 70/40 rule. That should be easy to spread along the course of the season, but you never know when a player could have a long-term injury. Racing him to the 10 right now would give them some peace of mind.
There’s also the possibility that they’re trying to make sure that Corrado doesn’t qualify, but I highly doubt that. He’d hit 70 over two years with just 31 games played this year.
Maybe Babs Just Likes Him: It’s possible we’re just overthinking this. After all, Hunwick spent three-quarters of a season in 2015/16 playing on a first pair with Morgan Rielly standing next to him on his wrong side, playing a heavy workload despite a lack of visible positive results.
Maybe this is just a Babcock thing, akin to the over-responsibility he appeared to give to certain role players in Detroit. It’s pretty farfetched, but to this (admittedly inexperienced) eye, so is the current arrangement of the roster.
I’m willing to hear some of your opinions, though. In what ways do you believe Hunwick positively impacts the roster?