by John McGourty || NHL.com
The race for the Calder Trophy each season always is interesting. In most seasons, including this one, several candidates make strong bids.
This season, Kris Versteeg, Derick Brassard, Steve Mason, Pekka Rinne, Bobby Ryan, Blake Wheeler, Drew Doughty and Luke Schenn all have made strong cases for themselves. Versteeg has stayed atop the scoring chart and probably is the leading candidate.
There was a time in December, however, when Matt Hunwick of the Boston Bruins was a strong candidate. Hunwick, a University of Michigan graduate, started the season with the AHL Providence Bruins, but was recalled Oct. 13 when the big club traded Andrew Alberts to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference were hurt for two months each, and Hunwick took a regular turn on the Bruins’ blue line, and saw time on the power play and the penalty kill.
Hunwick played 35 games for the Bruins before the NHL All-Star Game in late January, but only six since. His 19 points still rank second among NHL rookie defensemen, but Hunwick has a new role. He’s been skating at left wing on the first line with center Marc Savard and right wing Phil Kessel. His role will change again when Milan Lucic returns after from injury.
Hunwick had a goal and an assist in last Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Washington and he’s had four points in two games at forward. Not bad for the 2005 CCHA Defensive Defenseman of the Year. Hunwick got the Bruins’ first goal Saturday, a goal-mouth conversion off a nifty Savard pass.
"To go to the net, to have an opportunity to score, it was just one of those plays where I had my stick on the ice, and everybody knows ‘Savvy’ is a great passer," Hunwick said. "So I knew if I got to an area where he could find me, it was going to be on my tape.
"It wasn’t something I was expecting coming in here … but it was a lot of fun. Phil has a lot of speed, and ‘Savvy’ can find you just about anywhere on the ice, so I knew if I got out there and was able to get open, they were going to find me."
It’s been said you go to college not only to learn the subject matter but also to learn how to learn. Hunwick said playing for Red Berenson at Michigan was a great education.
"I played four years there and matured a lot," Hunwick said. "Coach Berenson is a big believer in playing four years and getting your degree. He says you want to dominate a level before you leave and go on to something bigger. That’s what we tried to do. Most of the players stayed four years and tried to be the best we could at that level before moving on.
"He was a great teacher of the game and a good person as far as teaching us the ways of life and putting importance on school. You can see how many players graduated. It was big to him and I think it will be big to a lot of players when they look back in 10 or 15 years and they’re really happy that they have that degree."
The Bruins had Hunwick slated for a second season at Providence in 2008-09, but he had other plans.
"I was down there for six or seven days but I was brought up after Andrew Alberts was traded and I played right away when I got up here," Hunwick said. "Then I sat out for close to three weeks. The injuries to Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward opened up some opportunities — not only for myself, but for the other defensemen. Also, it opened up a little power-play time and also some penalty-killing time, which is something good for my development. When those guys came back, that role was scaled back again. At this point, I think it’s been good for my development."
Hunwick gives a lot of credit for his development as a professional to Scott Gordon, his coach at Providence last season and now the coach of the New York Islanders.
"I think last year was huge as far as development," Hunwick said. "I had an opportunity to come up here the first half of the season and get some games in with these guys. Right after Christmas and the New Year, I was sent down and that’s where I played the rest of the season. That was one of the best things that could have happened to me as far as just playing in all situations and getting a lot of ice time. We had really good teams, in Boston and Providence, so it made it fun playing every night. I think in the playoffs that was another step for me as far as my development and gave me some momentum coming into training camp this season."
Hunwick said his first season helped him fulfill Berenson’s advice about excelling at one level before moving to the next. He played his first NHL game Nov. 10, 2007, and 12 more over the course of four call-ups last season.
"That was big, coming up here and seeing the speed and knowing exactly what the coaching staff wanted specifically, then going down and working on my overall game," Hunwick said. "The systems don’t always seem to be the same, going up and down. I think the biggest thing is just the ice time and playing in all situations down there.
"We had a really good team and a good defense, but come playoff time they were able to use me in all situations and I was able to play a lot. That was a big benefit for me. Also, being there gave me kind of a head start coming into training camp this year because there wasn’t a learning curve. I was able to come in and prepare and over the summer get ready. On the mental side, I think I knew exactly what they wanted. And I made it easier on myself."