With the Columbus Blue Jackets announcing Monday that rookie center Derick Brassard will undergo shoulder surgery and miss the rest of the season, the Calder Trophy race got a little more interesting.
Early on, it was Chicago right winger Kris Versteeg (eight goals, 17 assists, 25 points, plus-13) who shot out of the blocks. Recently, Brassard (10-15-25, plus-12), St. Louis center Patrik Berglund (11-10-21, plus-10) and Columbus goalie Steve Mason (9-6-1, 1.92 goals-against average, .929 save percentage, two shutouts) have been making up ground. Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty (3-8-11, more than 23 minutes of ice each night) has been earning rave reviews as his team’s best blueliner and Boston left winger Blake Wheeler (11-9-20, plus-19) is proving to be one of the better free agent signings of the past summer.
But there’s one under-the-radar player who is fast making a name for himself around the NHL and coming up in Calder chatter (at least when I’m involved) – Boston defender Matt Hunwick.
The 23-year-old native of Warren, Mich., is an alumnus of the U.S. National Team Development Program and the University of Michigan. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder started this year – his second pro season – with the American League’s Providence Bruins, but was called up after just two games. His first NHL game this season came on Oct. 15, but then he sat out until November. When Andrew Ference fractured his leg, Hunwick got a chance to be a regular and has only missed one game since.
After failing to register a point through his first five NHL games this season, Hunwick reeled off a six-game point streak in which he tallied three goals and eight points. He currently has three goals, 14 points (tying him for 10th among rookies with Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan) and is plus-13 in just 21 games. Only Pittsburgh’s Alex Goligoski has more points (15) among freshmen defensemen, but he’s played 11 more games than Hunwick.
Doughty is averaging about six minutes more than Hunwick’s 17:18 of ice time, but in December the Bruin’s TOI jumped to about 20:40 as he took on top-four minutes. And let’s not forget, Hunwick plays for the best team in the East, second overall in the NHL; Doughty’s Kings are tied for 23rd overall, fourth-last in the West.
Some other notable Hunwick numbers: he’s tied for fifth amongst rookies in assists, his plus-13 rating ranks in a tie for sixth amongst all NHL blueliners and is tied for 19th overall; he averages a blocked shot per game and has a 14.4 shooting percentage.
Of course, it’s not all about numbers; they can be deceiving. But Hunwick’s game has also progressed a lot this season.
“We always liked his mobility,” Boston coach Claude Julien told the Boston Herald in mid-December. “The thing we wanted to work with him on was his vision, on finding that outlet pass quicker. At times he would kind of look in one direction only, not see the whole ice. He started doing those things well and he gained a lot of confidence. Now he’s playing like a top-four (defenseman) for us.”
Hunwick probably won’t win the Calder (my guess right now is Wheeler); players drafted in the seventh round (Hunwick was No. 224 in 2004) rarely do, especially blueliners. But with Brassard going down, Hunwick has to at least be in the mix. He’s performing above expectations, he’s got the numbers and he plays an important role on one of the best teams in the league. All those signs point to, at the very least, an awards ceremony invitation in June.
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