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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

On Matt Hunwick, his amazing turnaround, and the case to re-sign

Matt Hunwick is an interesting player.

Two summers ago, he was a shrewd, analytics-friendly signing that had many praising the Leafs’ relatively new front office. After just a short while, however, Hunwick’s shine began to wear off, though he remained one of Mike Babcock’s go-to guys.

Through a year and a half of Hunwick’s tenure in Toronto, he was a below average player. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he pulled a complete °180, both in terms of his advanced metrics and the eye test. Why? How? Well, that’s what I’ll try to figure out in this post, along with whether or not his resurgence was sustainable.

Hunwick Pre-Leafs

Before getting into Hunwick over the past two seasons, let’s briefly take a look at what type of a player he was before he signed here.

As I mentioned, heading into free agency of 2015, Matt Hunwick was a player that a number of fans were hoping the Leafs had on their radar. He was a solid piece for both Colorado and New York and the thought process was that, on a cheap deal, he could be a guy that could really help the Leafs.

In three NHL seasons before signing in Toronto (he spent essentially all of 2013/14 in the AHL), Hunwick was a positive, relative to his teammates, in a number of important categories. Here’s a quick look at how he performed in those seasons:

Year Team 5v5 TOI/GM CF%Rel xGF%Rel SCF%Rel DZFO%
2011/12 COL 14.75 1.15 4.37 1.43 27.8
2012/13 COL 16.52 0.43 2.54 1.83 32.3
2014/15 NYR 14.27 5.10 3.32 4.14 23.7

Something I want you guys to notice here is the (slight) dip in performance once his ice time and defensive responsibility increased. Of course, that’s expected, but it’s something I’m going to circle back to as I dive into his time in Toronto.

Anyways, he was clearly a good, undervalued piece in the years leading up to his signing. Sure, he’s not (and wasn’t) an offensive juggernaut or game-changer but he can skate and make a good first pass – two things that lend themselves well to the way the way the game is now played.

Hunwick’s First Season In Toronto

Sometimes I wonder if Hunwick really knew what he was getting himself into when he signed here.

The Leafs were clearly in tank mode, as they had been selling off assets for quite some time. Hell, the team traded Phil Kessel the same day Hunwick was signed. Their roster was shaping up to be, well, bad, which was exactly what the team needed.

Because of this, Hunwick, who’s ideally a bottom pairing d-man, was thrust into the spotlight. He averaged 17:32 of even strength minutes per game, good for second among Leafs d-men (Jake Gardiner led the way with 17:35). Furthermore, Hunwick played the vast majority of his minutes with Morgan Rielly who, while he’s improving, was (and is) not a reliable defensive option (yet).

Just to give you guys a better idea of what type of competition Matty Hunz was dealing with, here are the 10 forwards he played the most minutes against. He quite literally played some of the toughest minutes in the NHL last season:

Rank Player TOI Against
1 Brad Marchand 41:52
2 Patrice Bergeron 41:10
3 Tomas Plekanec 39:20
4 Max Pacioretty 39:04
5 Brendan Gallagher 38:39
6 Alex Ovechkin 33:35
7 Steven Stamkos 32:11
8 Sidney Crosby 29.27
9 T.J Oshie 28:44
10 Nicklas Backstrom 28:36

Because of the insane task bestowed upon him, most of Hunwick’s teammates tended to do better away from him than with him. Shocker. His WOWYs from 2015/16:

Couple all of that with the fact that Hunwick was Toronto’s most heavily used d-man in the defensive zone, starting 35.4% of his from-faceoff shifts in his own end, and, well, you’ve thrust a bottom pairing d-man into a role best suited for an Erik Karlsson or P.K Subban.

Not only was this role well above Hunwick’s abilities, but it was downright unfair. Fans don’t necessarily always take things like competition and zone starts into account and, because of this, Hunwick’s public perception began to shift. Seemingly overnight, he went from a useful player to one of the worst defenders in the NHL.

Matt Hunwick, 2016/17, Pre-Turnaround

Okay, so this is where things start to get weird and where the article really starts.

I split up the 2016/17 season into quarters, focusing on a number of different statistics in each one. For Hunwick’s pre-turnaround, we’ll be focusing on the first two quarters – so the first half – of the season. Let’s get to it.

1st Quarter: October 12th, 2016 – November 23rd, 2016 (12 games played, 8 lost to injury)

This was an incredibly tough quarter for Hunwick. Actually, it was an incredibly tough first game for Hunwick. Remember this hit? The one that almost certainly left him concussed, although it was never reported as a concussion?

This his occurred just minutes into the first game of the season. Though any sort of injury went unreported,  he only ended up playing 2 minutes and 11 seconds in that game, so something was clearly up. Plus, we all know how the NHL deals with concussions. I think it would be fair to say that Hunwick, almost immediately, began playing at less than 100%.

Things would get worse, though, as on the 25th of October, in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Hunwick suffered a lower body injury. This caused him to miss eight straight games, as he didn’t return to the lineup until mid-November. I’m not looking to make excuses for the guy, but it’s fair to say that he started behind the 8-ball in terms of getting healthy and up to game speed.

In the 12 games he did play, though, Hunwick was absolutely terrible. As I mentioned, I broke the season down into fourths and will be showing how his numbers progress quarter-to-quarter. Here’s how he performed in his limited, action in Q1:

Possession: 

CF60 CA60 CF% CF%Rel
50.38 60.04 45.62 -7.68

Expected goals:

xGF60 xGA60 xGF% xGF%Rel
2.69 2.81 48.93 -6.68

Scoring Chances:

SCF60 SCA60 SCF% SCF%Rel
9.64 11.93 44.7 -15.81

Yeah. Those are some miserable numbers.

An interesting note from Hunwick’s first quarter of the season is that he played the majority of his minutes with Nikita Zaitsev, which is something that I think we’ve forgotten about. Here’s how his partner distribution at even strength is broken down:

  • Rielly: 9.95 mins (5.9%)
  • Gardiner: 10.03 mins (6%)
  • Carrick: 13.83 mins (8.2%)
  • Marincin: 33.11 mins (19.7%) 
  • Polak: 41.53 mins (24.7%)
  • Zaitsev: 60.83 mins (36.17%) 

Yes, I know these numbers don’t add up exactly to 100%. I rounded up and, as you’ll see later, left players off the list that he played under five minutes with. Anyways, I find the Zaitsev pairing interesting and it’s the only time he makes an appearance as Hunwick’s most common partner.

Hunwick also had a 32.64% defensive zone start percentage. That’s definitely not an insane number by any stretch but Hunwick is a player who needs to be at least somewhat sheltered.

To summarize Hunwick’s first quarter: He was most likely hurt right off the bat, absolutely hurt just a short while later, and was playing with a partner who doesn’t necessarily compliment him when he returned. He was fighting an uphill battle the entire time.

2nd Quarter: November 24th, 2016 – January 13th, 2017 (20 games played)

This is where we can start to see things start to shift for Hunwick, and there are a number of key differences in looking at this quarter compared to the last. Before we get into those, let’s again take a look at his numbers and how they’ve progressed:

Possession:

CF60 CA60 CF% CF%Rel
58.16 61.1 48.77 -5.11

Expected Goals:

xGF60 xGA60 xGF% xGF%Rel
2.94 2.49 54.09 -1.35

 Scoring Chances:

SCF60 SCA60 SCF% SCF%Rel
10.00 7.83 56.09 1.95

I know there are two minuses in the ‘relative to team’ columns, but his numbers here are actually fairly impressive. An xGF% of over 54% is fantastic but the Leafs were such an offensive juggernaut that Hunwick couldn’t break even.

Also, Hunwick’s CF% of nearly 49% is right near average, but it becomes even more impressive when taking into account that Hunwick started over 37% of his shifts in the defensive zone. For some reason, the coaching staff thought that Hunwick needed more defensive responsibility and, you know what, it worked!

Another part of the beginning of his turnaround is simply getting healthy.

We know Hunwick dealt with lower body issues (and brain issues, probably) throughout the first quarter of the season. It’s fair to assume this hindered his mobility and skating, which are things he’s actually pretty good at. Here, we can see a glimpse of the kind of ability he has, moving well and making smart decisions with the puck. Hunwick getting healthy has a large role in this article.

Another part of the turnaround, believe it or not, may have been Roman Polak. Let me explain.

First, let’s go through his partner ice-time distribution for the second quarter:

  • Rielly: 10.21 (3.5%) 
  • Zaitsev: 12.02 (4%) 
  • Gardiner: 21.36 (7.6%) 
  • Polak: 232.35 (83%) 

Listen, I’m not a huge intangibles guy, I think leadership is one of the most overrated qualities in sport, and ‘grit’ is literally meaningless. However, I do believe that there’s something to be said for a guy knowing his partner and knowing his partner well.

In the first quarter, we saw that Hunwick played the majority of his minutes with newcomer Nikita Zaitsev. Of course, Zaitsev was brand new to the team and had zero familiarity with Hunwick. Another part of it was that after Zaitsev, Hunwick played a significant amount of his minutes with Polak and Marincin. He was placed in somewhat of a partner carousel. That all but stopped in the second quarter.

As you can see, Hunwick was saddled with Polak for 83% of all his even strength minutes. Polak is not great, we can all agree on that, but I really do believe that players are more comfortable knowing night in, night out who they’re going to be playing with. That’s just human nature.

Something else that jumps out when looking at the numbers is the uptick in offensive production and the apparent decrease in scoring chances against. Hunwick increased his shot attempts for per 60 minutes by nearly eight shots, which is significant. On the defensive side, his CA60 didn’t really change, although his SCA60 decreased by nearly three.

Also, as Ian Tulloch (@regressian) pointed out to me, near the end of this quarter is when Polak started to really buy into the idea of ‘5-man total hockey’. Essentially, Polak became more engaged in the rush, which would also help to explain the rise in Hunwick’s on-ice shot attempt numbers.

Again, there’s nothing that I can point to where I can say, “THIS is why Hunwick’s numbers begin to turn around.” It’s a combination of a number of different things. From Polak not completely sucking, to getting healthy, to being comfortable with who he was playing with – all of these things aided Hunwick’s transition back into the player he once was.

Matt Hunwick, 2016/17, God-mode

When I was doing research for this article, I knew that Hunwick had a very clear turnaround in the second half, but I didn’t really realize just how drastic it was. The change in his numbers is significant, as you’ll see.

3rd Quarter: January 14th, 2016 – February 23rd, 2017 (18 games played)

Alright, here’s where it really begins. When I decided to look at Hunwick’s season in quarters, I had no clue that the numbers would split so perfectly. Take a look at the sort of numbers he posted in his third quarter of the season:

Possession:

CF60 CA60 CF% CF%Rel
57.52 53.38 51.87 0.7

Expected Goals:

xGF60 xGA60 xGF% xGF%Rel
3.00 2.41 55.42 3.57

Scoring Chances: 

SCF60 SCA60 SCF% SCF%Rel
10.00 6.22 61.64 5.29

I mean, wow – those are great numbers. While Hunwick may not be the most defensively aware or highest-IQ player out there, it’s very impressive how his defensive numbers continued to improve as the season progressed. All three of his key defensive metrics here improved on his already decent second quarter.

Yes, he did start fewer shifts in the defensive zone (33.61) but that’s by no means getting easy minutes. A large part of this, like the second quarter, is just getting healthy and getting familiar with his defensive partner.

As you can see, Hunwick continued to play the bulk of his minutes with Polak:

  • Rielly: 9.43 (3.4%) 
  • Gardiner: 14.19 (5.1%) 
  • Zaitsev: 21.03 (7.6%) 
  • Polak: 224.28 (81.2%)

There was something I noticed a lot throughout the back half of the season, and I’m glad Sean Tierney (@chartinghockey) was able to capture it. Like I’ve already talked about, two of Matt Hunwick’s strengths are his skating and his decent first pass. Something I noticed him doing a lot towards the latter half of the year was using his teammates as decoys to facilitate zone exits. It’s something I see Jake Gardiner do a lot and, clearly, it works for him.

Here’s one example Sean was able to find of Hunwick doing this.

This is something that Hunwick used more and more as the season went on. I’m not necessarily talking about plays exactly like this, though. We saw him use nifty plays to spin off pressure in the defensive zone. Also, as I’ll get to later, we also saw him use his skating ability to step up in the neutral and offensive zone as well.

I’ve already talked about Polak buying into ‘5-man total hockey’ and, throughout the latter half of the year, there are many, many examples of Hunwick doing the same. This time, along with familiarity of his d-partner and getting healthy, we can add something tangible to the equation, which is fitting into the system Mike Babcock had been trying to employ.

4th Quarter: February 24th, 2016 – Aril 9th, 2017 (22 games played)

So it’s been two quarters in a row now since Hunwick began to turn things around. This quarter, the fourth, is likely his most impressive. There are a few things I want to talk about, but first here’s a look at how he produced in the final quarter fo the season.

Possession:

CF60 CA60 CF% CF%Rel
 66.12  54.23 54.94 5.92

Expected Goals:

xGF60 xGA60 xGF% xGF%Rel
2.98 2.23 57.21 10.39

Scoring Chances: 

SCF60 SCA60 SCF% SCF%Rel
9.54 8.26 53.59 6.51

As I said in the third quarter, I wanted to talk about how well Hunwick seemed to be defending in the neutral zone and jumping into the rush in the offensive zone. This is something he has always had the ability to do because 1) the Leafs play a 5 man system and, 2) he can skate. For whatever reason, the latter half of the season is really when we started seeing more of this from Hunwick.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about (thank you, Ian, for the gif):

Hunwick is able to read the play and has the ability to jump up and completely deny the Senators a chance at gaining the zone. The numbers back up Hunwick’s entry defense, too.

Disclaimer: I completely stole this from Drag Like Pull’s article on Nikita Zaitsev (which you should read if you haven’t already). Essentially, what this shows is how each Leafs defender defended the blue line. Carry-in% represents how many times the opposition was able to skate the puck into Toronto’s zone while targeting a specific d-man, while break-up% represents the percentage of times a defender would break up a play at the blue line, not letting the puck enter the zone.

PLAYER CARRY-IN% BREAK-UP%
MATT HUNWICK 57.8% 10.8%
JAKE GARDINER 58.2% 8.2%
MARTIN MARINCIN 62.1% 6.1%
MORGAN REILLY 63.4% 6.2%
CONNOR CARRICK 65.2% 7.8%
ROMAN POLAK 67.2% 4.1%
NIKITA ZAITSEV 70.5% 5.8%

As you can see, Matt Hunwick led all Leafs d-men in both categories. That’s pretty impressive but at the same time, it shouldn’t be shocking based on how mobile he is.

The other thing that I mentioned, Hunwick jumping into the play in the offensive zone, will be easier to show you. Hell, he did it on one of the most important goals the Leafs have scored in years. Here he is, making a smart decision in the offensive zone that led to Toronto tying Pittsburgh at three in the second last game of the season:

Lastly, let’s take a look at who Hunwick played his minutes with during the fourth quarter of the season:

  • Carrick: 12.70 (3.8%) 
  • Gardiner: 21.31 (6.4%) 
  • Zaitsev: 24.81 (7.4%)
  • Rielly: 45.01 (13.4%)
  • Polak: 211.00 (63.2%) 

An interesting note: this is the first time since the first quarter that a Hunwick played over 10% of his minutes with a player that wasn’t Roman Polak. In this case, he spent over 13% of his minutes with Morgan Rielly. Is that a tonne of time? No, it isn’t, although it may help to explain Hunwick’s somewhat worse individual defensive numbers (even though his relative numbers improved).

Conclusion

When he’s not playing the toughest minutes (literally) in the league and when he’s relatively healthy, yes, Matt Hunwick is a more than useful player.

Sometimes we get too caught up in trying to figure out exactly how a player got worse or got better. We’ll analyze everything about their game when, really, the answer isn’t so complicated. That’s exactly what I think we’ve done in Hunwick’s case.

Remember the list of Hunwick’s most common opponents I included earlier from the 2015/16 season? Compare that to who he played the most minutes against from this season and you’ll really start to see the difference in competition:

Rank Player TOI Against
1 Brian Gionta 27:21
2 Marcus Foligno 26:22
3 Evander Kane 20:44
4 Jonathan Marchessault 20:05
5 Jack Eichel 19:35
6 Sam Reinhart 19:35
7 David Krejci 19:24
8 Brett Connolly 18:56
9 Ryan O’Reilly 18:38
10 Andreas Athanasiou 18:09

So, uh, yeah, it’s safe to say that Matt Hunwick was deployed much more effectively and efficiently this time around. Also, as was mentioned all throughout the post, I truly believe that a large part of the turnaround has as much to do with him getting healthy as it does his zone starts, competition, and teammates. Again, sometimes we focus on everything except for what’s right there in front of our faces.

Now, having said all this, should the Leafs look to bring Hunwick back?

The Toronto Maple Leafs should be major players this offseason. The team needs are easily identifiable – they need defence.

Is Matt Hunwick the answer? No, absolutely not. Toronto needs a top-four option, preferably right handed, very, very badly. However, just because a team needs one thing doesn’t mean that’s all they need. Depth is never a bad thing, and that’s exactly what a player like Hunwick can provide.

In his first year, he was being played well above his pay grade. In his second, he started the year injured, with a rotating cast of partners. Once he got healthy and a steady partner, Hunwick was more than capable at playing at a third pairing level.

So, yes, I would re-sign Matt Hunwick. Obviously, that’s contingent on them not filling his spot with someone more capable. Ideally, he’d come back on a one-year deal with an AAV somewhere in the range of $1.1-1.3 million. I think that’s fair.

To sum things up, no, Matt Hunwick was not given a fair shake in his first season in Toronto and yes, he showed he was capable in his second. I wouldn’t mind seeing Hunny in the Blue and White for the upcoming season.

**stats courtesy of corsica.hockey (rip), stats.hockeyanalysis.com, and Corey Sznajder

  • getrdone

    I am a 75 year old guy that never finished high school but loves my Leafs and I love reading about them, but breaking down stats on a player and judging from there how valuable the player is. All this corsi, fenwick and other fancy stats and my mind glazes over and I get lost in the numbers, so as good as this piece may be, it is lost on me.

    • ACLeafs

      While I enjoy analytics, there tend to be a lot of articles like this one which want to put as many numbers and statistics they can find into an article instead of focusing on a couple key values or interesting concepts outside the norm. Unfortunately for all the numbers and stats in this article it really doesn’t shed any new light on Hunwick that the “old fashioned” eye test didn’t already tell us.

      Hunwick is a third pair D that struggles against tougher competition and was stuck with a boat anchor in Polak.

    • Capt.Jay

      It’s ok, I’m half your age almost and educated and sure youve seen and done far more than most. He lost me when he said grit and leadership were overrated which are things your generation excelled at.

  • magesticRAGE

    What I value most in a player, especially in a defender, is their processing power. Having all the mobility and passing ability is nothing unless you can make the right decisions fast enough. Hunwick’s brain is too slow (that actually sounds really harsh) for today’s NHL. This is the reason he gets hemmed in the defensive zone, and why he has the propensity to get hammered while trying to make a simple play. It is a bad example to send to blueline rookies, you can’t put yourself in dangerous positions unless it is for a trophy.
    BTW, Polak outplayed Hunwick down the stretch.

  • magesticRAGE

    With Dermott, Valiev, Borgstrom, and Rosen being lefties, and do everything that Hunwick does but better, it wouldn’t make sense to use a SPC on him.