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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

2016-17 Leafs Season In Review: Matt Hunwick

On the last day of our Season in Review series, we’ve decided to double dip and talk about everybody’s favourite third defensive pairing. I’ll be kicking us off this afternoon, with the perhaps needlessly polarizing Matt Hunwick.

Weaknesses

We’re going to do this one in reverse order. Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak were together for the bulk of this season, and in previous experience together, they were one of the worst pairings the Leafs had seen in years, at least as far as allowing shots goes. Granted, it didn’t stay as bad this year, but they still found themselves on the ice for the end of many third period meltdowns, plenty of puck-chasing plays that ended in penalties, and a lot of head-scratching goals.

The end result for Hunwick was that he was more likely than his teammates to be outshot by attempts than most of his peers. Interestingly, though, the gap closes as you get into scoring chance, unblocked attempts, and actual shots. He’s above water in expected goals and, as those who want to stick to the basics will point out to you, actual goals. The latter of which probably has an element of luck to it:

But it’s still something that happened. Notably, in most of the other shot-based differentials, he’s a clear step ahead of Polak, implying that even as Hunwick had to slot into higher spots in the lineup to play with Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner, or Morgan Rielly, he was able to peel away and make up some ground. Sure, the teammates are better, but so were the competition, so for him to get a few percentage points ahead in things like Corsi,  Fenwick, and Expected Goals is interesting.

The direct weakness here, however, is that Hunwick, much like last year, had a very negative at worst or neutral at best impact on the flow of the game for a large chunk of the season.

Strengths

Firstly, we’ve had a few posts that have come to the defence of Hunwick, if not the third pair in the past few months; largely because they started getting better results as the season progressed. This chart from Ryan Hobart’s post back in March shows the trickle towards acceptability, if not positivity, in the later end of the season:

Evan Presement also breaks down Hunwick’s re-awakening in astonishing detail in this post from June 3rd. In fact, it might even be better for you to read this than to invest yourself too hard into a brief review post like this one, if you’re looking for a convincing case for him as a defenceman.

I will say this, though: Hunwick’s biggest strength is that he can fill in and mostly hold the fort. In the two years he’s been here, his most significant partners have been:

  • Morgan Rielly, on a top pair, with Rielly playing on his off-hand.
  • Nikita Zaitsev, on a high competition pair, with Zaitsev playing his first NHL games of his career.
  • Roman Polak, who is Roman Polak.

Hunwick’s job, in a sense, has always been to fill in the void and to play the non-ideal roles that nobody particularly wants to put themselves through. It reminds me a lot of how Toronto used Dion Phaneuf in his final few years with the team (and especially coming out of the half-lockout); roles that a player signed as an analtyics-friendly, eye-test compliant depth defenceman should never have been forced into, but he’d continue to kill his penalties, attempt to stay in the right position, block a shot or two or finish a check, and, as we’ve seen hundreds of times, chip a shot towards the net from the top-left point.

Should the Leafs be doing better than making Matt Hunwick do the things he does? Probably. The toughest minutes he’s played, and he’s played a lot of them, are better suited to better defencemen. The weaker minutes, as much as I like Roman Polak the person and get a kick out of watching him when I’m watching for fun rather than for work… they can do a lot better than him moving forward. Hunwick has spent his entire tenure in Toronto as the square peg stuffed into round holes and has done so happily and with bursts of success.

Oh, and he outscored Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Drew Doughty, Cam Fowler, Shea Weber, TJ Brodie, Anton Stralman, Aaron Ekblad and a bunch of other big-name defencemen at Even Strength this year. That’s kinda fun.

Looking Forward

I want Matt Hunwick back next year. I think he’s a competent, fine third pairing defenceman, and if he remains on the third pair on the left side with a good partner, that wouldn’t be terrible. He’s a guy that can slot in at a tier above in a quick pinch in the event of an injury or a night off, and he’s probably not going to cost much to retain.

But I also don’t want Matt Hunwick back next year. While he’s held his own in tougher situations, the Leafs are at a stage in their build where they need players who thrive and dominate with that adversity, not just keep themselves from drowning. It seems that Mike Babcock likes him a lot, which is a gift and a curse; if somebody more qualified comes around, I wouldn’t want to risk familiarity giving Hunwick the tiebreaker, or his retention being used as an excuse for Polak’s retention, or for a reunion of that pair with right-side Rielly.

If your crystal ball insists to me that those things won’t happen, I’d gladly take him back. If it goes the other direction, I hope he goes to a likeable team that’s not likely to crush Toronto’s dreams, and I hope he does well for them. Moreso than any other depth player on the team, Hunwick is the player I’ve come around the most to this year, so hopefully he finds the ideal mutual fit, be it here or elsewhere.