It’s easy to forget in the postmortem of the Penguins’ first playoff series loss since 2015, but Matt Hunwick is still under contract for another two seasons. When a player sits out 35 of a team’s final 44 games despite being healthy, he’s probably on the fringes of an organization.
However, with uncertainty regarding whether the Penguins will retain restricted free agent Jamie Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel‘s limited track record of NHL success, there’s at least a decent chance that the 33-year-old Hunwick will be in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the 2018-19 season.
That’s in no way a credit to Hunwick’s performance in the first year of a three-year contract given him by Jim Rutherford last July. After being deployed as a shut-down defender in Toronto for two seasons, Hunwick posted the worst even-strength shot share (48.9 percent) and chance share (47.9 percent) among regular Penguins defensemen.
Hunwick didn’t exactly drive play with the Maple Leafs from 2015-17, but at least he had his defense-first role upon which to pin those results. No such luck in Pittsburgh, where he started an equal proportion of shifts in the offensive and defensive zones.
On locker cleanout day earlier this month in Cranberry Township, Rutherford called Hunwick “still a capable guy” who “can play here,” partially explaining the blue liner’s difficulties by referencing the burden of expectations.
“I think for a player coming into a team that had the success we had, it’s very different for a player,” Rutherford said. “They try to play outside their game, try to do too much. There were times where he played fine, but I think he put too much pressure on himself.”
Hunwick made no such admission, but he said the Penguins’ tactical idiosyncrasies took some getting used to once he arrived in training camp. Whereas Hunwick said he made a “seamless” transition to Toronto’s style of play three years ago, Mike Sullivan‘s game plan was a tougher nut to crack.
“In terms of system stuff, both teams (Toronto and Pittsburgh) like to play an up-tempo game,” Hunwick admitted. “It’s more of the nuances. … Having been here, I know what they want and now it’s a matter of going out and executing those things and being confident.”
Digging Out Of A Hole
That last part made it sound like Hunwick is confident he’ll get another shot to stick. Depending on this summer’s player-movement activities — especially possible extensions for Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan and Oleksiak — the Penguins might not have much of a choice but to see whether Year 2 goes more smoothly for Hunwick than Year 1.
On the surface, Hunwick still appears a good fit with the Penguins’ demanding style of play. His skating ability is very strong, and he showed a decent knack for aiding in the attack throughout 2017-18. But assignments in the defensive zone seemed to fluster Hunwick more often than not.
It also didn’t help that Hunwick missed several games early in the season with a concussion and a few more in January with a lower-body injury. That latter absence stung Hunwick more, he said, since he didn’t get a chance to play when the Penguins kicked into high gear.
“Just our team in general, we weren’t at our best in the first few months of the season,” Hunwick said. “You could see after Christmas we took off. Unfortunately I missed some time with injuries and didn’t play a whole lot down the stretch.”
Following the trade of Ian Cole to the Blue Jackets at the end of February, Hunwick received a better chance to crack the lineup, but he played just five more times after that. That sixth spot on the blue line went to Ruhwedel, who is signed for another year at $650,000 and comes with the added benefit of being right-handed.
During the playoffs, Hunwick was relegated to watching, which had to hurt considering the decent work he did head-to-head against Alex Ovechkin in the first round of the 2017 postseason.
“He got himself in a position where he got six guys ahead of him and nobody got hurt,” Rutherford said.
Move On Or Move Up?
If Rutherford is looking for ways to recoup some value from Hunwick, there are options.
He could dump Hunwick’s $2.25 million salary in a trade. Teams are constantly seeking depth and maybe the success of the Golden Knights with an average defense corps will cause another team to think they could put Hunwick’s skills to good use. In a free-agent market where the one-dimensional Mike Green is one of the top defenseman available, perhaps Hunwick looks pretty good for teams looking for something a little less flashy.
If Hunwick returns for a second season, the Penguins should try to refine his deployment.
Although both are left-handed defensemen, Hunwick and Olli Määttä showed some promising compatibility when paired together last season, at least in terms of shot share. The Penguins accounted for 51.4 percent of the shot attempts when Hunwick and Määttä were on the ice, Hunwick’s best result with anyone of the five defensemen he played 50 or more minutes with last season.
Beyond the tandem of Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, which Sullivan appears to like quite a bit, there is some future fluidity in the possible partnerships on the Penguins’ blue line. Perhaps a pairing with Määttä and a fresh start in September can get Hunwick back to a spot where he can contribute to the cause.
“We want to play an uptempo game,” Hunwick said. “We want to skate and defend hard. I think I can do those things.”
Above all else, Hunwick seems aware that his problems in 2017-18 weren’t all circumstantial. He bore a significant part of the blame for being marginalized by the end of the season.
“I’d like to play a lot better,” he said. “I’d like to be more assertive and more confident out of the gate. Knowing the system and knowing the guys, that should help.”