A healthy scratch 13 times this season, Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick has learned how to stay ready even when he hasn’t been called on to skate in a game for sometimes weeks at a time.
However, the rookie might not have to worry about such special preparation tactics for a while.
“Every time we’ve put him in, he’s given us a good spark and done a pretty good job — whether it’s at forward or on defense,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien said before Hunwick registered an assist in the Bruins’ win over New Jersey Sunday. “So I think he deserves to be in the lineup right now, and as long as he deserves to be there, he’s going to stay there.”
Sometimes it can be tough to statistically gauge a player’s value to his team. And during this highly successful Bruins’ season, a lot of players can point to the club’s record with them in the lineup as a mark of pride. But the 23-year-old Hunwick really has made a splash in his limited opportunty. In games Hunwick registers a point, the Bruins are 12-1-2. And the 46-17-10 Bruins are just a mediocre 13-10-3 when they don’t have Hunwick in uniform.
So in his first full NHL season and just his second year of pro hockey, Hunwick has come a long way. He said he hasn’t had a ton of time to reflect on everything he’s learned — including how to play forward — but he’s improved at a rate he can accept.
“I think if you look at it kind of on a chart, I’ve grown as a player. It hasn’t always been straight up hill. There’s been, obviously, dips and dives,” said Hunwick, who has put up 6-15-21 totals and a plus-14 rating this season. “But you have to fight through those just like any other player. Overall though, from the start to where we are now, I’ve improved a lot and definitely gained confidence.”
That confidence was given even more of a boost with a promotion to the first power-play unit opposite Dennis Wideman at the points. Hunwick’s quintet scored two power-play goals against the Devils and kept the heat on for the entirety of its time on the ice. It’s not difficult for Wideman to pinpoint what ingredients Hunwick brings to the man-advantage.
“Hunwick, he moves the puck very well. He battles really well and he’s fast,” said the veteran. “He’s strong on the puck and makes strong plays. He’s got the offensive instinct that he kind of knows when to go and when to push it a little bit. He’s pretty good with knowing when to make the safe play and just get it in.”
Those safe plays don’t always come naturally, especially when a career defenseman gets a little bit used to the freewheeling life of a forward. But Hunwick has continued to adapt. And while his mind is mostly focused helping the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins advance as far as possible in this season’s postseason, when prompted, he’s willing to look forward to his continued development into a top-four blueliner in the NHL.
“Last year, I felt like I made some strides at Providence. And then over the summer I felt like I got better — knowing the system,” he said. “I think next year hopefully it’ll be the same way, where I can look back and try to learn from the mistakes I made here and then carry that over … and come back stronger next year.”
Those improvements might come earlier than next year if you count the postseason as the “second season.” And if the regular-season numbers continue to hold, with Hunwick in the lineup the Bruins’ second season might be a lengthy one.