Tag Archives: Matt Hunwick

COLUMN: Things Are Beginning To Click

The Penguins took down the Islanders on Thursday evening and what a big win it was. They gave the Islanders a point, something that doesn’t look good now but will be meaningless in the long run if things continue the way they are.

The guys are clicking right now. Even despite the loss of Justin Schultz to a lower body injury, they were able to scratch out the 4-3 overtime win and pretty much dominated the game statistically.

I’m just going to provide some bullet points and you can stop me when I’m wrong.

-The special teams was a perfect 100% on Thursday. The Penguins were able to eek out two power play goals, Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel being the culprits. The Penalty Kill, on the other hand, was sensational. “I thought our penalty kill was great tonight,” Sullivan said. They truly were. It seemed they had more of a willingness to block shots and Tristan Jarry did a good job stopping the shots that did get through to him.

-Both Guentzel and Kessel are absolutely killing it in terms of scoring. Guentzel scored his 13th tonight ad is on pace for 36 goals. Will he get there? We’ll see. I think he reaches 30 on the year and no one is going to complain about that. Kessel is playing some of the best all-around hockey of his career. I predicted at the beginning of the season that he would have 80 points this year. He’s got 14 goals and 35 points in 30 games. At this pace, he’ll hit 80.

-Did the Penguins really lose their starting goaltender? You wouldn’t know it if you are just tuning into the Penguins season. Jarry has been sensational in the absence of Matt Murray and has done everything you could ask and more. The Penguins were worried about Jarry’s development if he was riding the bench in Pittsburgh but he has been great in injury relief. 5-1-0 with a 2.39 GAA and a .921 SV%? I will sign up for those numbers every time.

Matt Hunwick was the most unlikeliest of heroes in this game. In 3-on-3 overtime, anything can happen. After being stoned by Jaroslav Halak just seconds before potting the game winner, Hunwick had been playing in overtime mainly due to the Schultz injury. He’s never had more than six goals in a season in his career. It’s unlikely he will reach that this season. But Hunwick isn’t as bad as some of the fans portray him. He’s been solid, he just isn’t flashy.

That’s only a few points that can be made. Sidney Crosby is back on top of his game. Patric Hornqvist has been a menace all year long. The list goes on and on.

The team did lose Tom Kuhnhackl for the final period due to injury. They are already thin in the bottom-six and it looks like Greg McKegg will be back in Pittsburgh if Kuhnhackl misses any time. They did give a point to the Islanders which now means that spots 1-5 in the Metropolitan are separated by one point. But if that’s the worst news to come out of the game to, can you be mad?

Jarry shut down one of the youngest and hottest teams in hockey right now for 55 minutes. He had a little blip late in the game but kept it together enough to send it to overtime. That’s the maturity of a veteran goaltender. He’s making huge saves and helping win games before he’s even had 10 at the NHL level.

The Penguins are winners of 5 of their last 6 and have some winnable games coming up on the schedule. While every game is tough, there is no excuse this team can’t win more games and try and break away from the Metropolitan Division pack.

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Ruhwedel Making Most of Opportunity

A seventh defenseman in hockey is a lot like a backup quarterback in football. You may see hardly any action at all. You may play a vast majority of the games if your team suffers a horrible injury at the position. For Chad Ruhwedel, this uncertainty hasn’t bothered him in the least.

After Ian Cole took that gruesome puck to the mouth, Ruhwedel was inserted into the lineup as the team needed reinforcements on defense. He played a few games and just as Cole was ready to come back and Ruhwedel was bound to depart back to the press box, Matt Hunwick was diagnosed with a concussion.

Ruhwedel has played in seven contests this season. He has an assist and is even on the year. To the common eye, those stats are below average. To the hockey eye, those stats mean little if you watch him play.

In hockey, a defensemen’s job is to shut down his opponent from getting quality chances on the goaltender. Ruhwedel does just that. They’re also expected to pitch in offensively. Ruhwedel’s numbers are not eye popping. But, he doesn’t hold on to the puck too long and always seems to make the right decision.

In the past two games, Ruhwedel has made some really quality passes.

In the blowout against Tampa Bay Saturday night, Ruhwedel made a beautiful pass from his zone all the way up to Bryan Rust who got in alone on Andrei Vasilevskiy but couldn’t finish. Tuesday night in the big overtime victory against Edmonton, Ruhwedel was being closed in on by two defenders and pushed the puck up to Phil Kessel who found Evgeni Malkin on a two-on-one who went back to Kessel and couldn’t bury the puck to add an assist to Ruhwedel’s totals.

As I’m watching Ruhwedel, it’s easy to see that confidence exudes from him. He isn’t timid like former Penguins’ defenseman Derrick Pouliot. He makes a decision and sticks to it. There’s no second guessing. He’s right pretty much every time, too.

He’s a guy who has high offensive instincts. His scoring totals don’t show that with only 13 points in 74 games, but he has a “get the puck on net” mentality. That is something head coach Mike Sullivan highly respects.

Last season was a real turning point for Ruhwedel. In 34 games, Ruhwedel had his only two career goals and totaled 10 points. He was given the opportunity after a myriad of injuries. He turned it into a solidified spot on the Penguins roster and a two year extension at an AAV of $650,000. That’s a steal for the Penguins.

The 27-year old’s 34 games last season were a career high. He’s never been given a real shot at the NHL level and was a perennial AHL top-pair defenseman in his Buffalo days.

Justin Schultz was concussed on Tuesday night which is a bad sign for the Penguins. It’s music to Ruhwedel’s ears. Hunwick began skating Tuesday morning and could return as soon as Thursday if all goes well. One would expect Schultz to at least miss Thursday.

I’d go as far as saying that I’d like to see Ruhwedel be a top-six defenseman on the team. I wasn’t super impressed with Hunwick’s play in his couple games with the Penguins. Of course, that means virtually nothing with the small sample size he’s had.

There is value to be had in Ruhwedel, however, and if the Penguins feel he can outperform a guy like Hunwick, they could move him later. They could always use the cap relief especially after acquiring Riley Sheahan and his $2.075 million contract. Hunwick makes $2.250 million.

This is no suggestion that he’ll beat out Hunwick at any point in the year. It is merely just a point the Penguins may consider. Ruhwedel is a potential top-6 defenseman who happens to have the “seventh defenseman” role on a deep defense. If they do get healthy on defense and Ruhwedel becomes a press box guy again, don’t be shocked if they sprinkle him in to givestruggling defensemen a breather.

Odd Men Out

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a log-jam on defense. As of July 26, just over two months until the 2017-2018 season begins, the Penguins currently have 9 defensemen that could possibly make the roster come October. This begs the question, which defensemen will be left off the team and which will be the odd men out?

The Keepers

To me, there are four defensemen that are absolute locks to be here and playing at the start of the season; Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Ian Cole. Leaving Olli Maatta off this list is somewhat controversial sure but we’ll get to him later. Besides Maatta, this leaves Frank Corrado, Matt Hunwick, Chad Ruhwedel, and Derrick Pouliot all fighting for the remaining three spots.

The Unlikely

It would seem as though that the struggling Corrado and journeyman Chad Ruhwedel are destined to start in the AHL next season. Despite General Manager Jim Rutherford‘s high praise for Ruhwedel at the beginning of free agency, it seems as though the signing of Matt Hunwick has made him more of a depth defensemen than a top 6 guy. Hunwick is known to struggle, though, and has been driving Toronto fans nuts for years; so if he does start to flounder, or the inevitable injury to a defensemen happens, expect Ruhwedel to be the first guy up. Corrado on the other hand…well, who really knows. It seems as if he’s been forgotten over the past few months as free agency continues. Unless he stuns the coaching staff and GM in the preseason, Corrado will probably be heading to Wilkes-Barre for a majority of the season.

Three Men, Two Spots

This leaves us with Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Matt Hunwick, all fighting for the two spots that remain. As I’ve said about Hunwick, I do expect to see him on opening night, that may be in the press box or on the ice, but I just think that Rutherford would not give a three-year deal with an AAV of $2.25 million to someone just to be banished to the minors. Now, if Olli Maatta is still a Penguin by October, then there is absolutely no doubt that he will be starting. Maatta’s game went from amazing to disastrous after a slew of injuries stunted his development. Maatta’s mistakes stand out due to his lack of speed. However, when he’s not getting burned, he is still an outstanding defensemen. Maatta really has transformed his game to become a more complete NHL defensemen since his rookie season, but his speed is still something that plagues him. I personally do not want the Penguins to trade Olli Maatta. He is a great defensemen with a bright future ahead of him. That being said, when looking at the void at third line center and the excess that the Pens have on D…if Rutherford wanted to make a splash and trade for a big name, (which he does not have to), Maatta would almost have to be going the other way.  Finally there is the never-ending conundrum that is Derrick Pouliot. The Pen’s best defensive prospect has struggled ever since he stunned Pittsburgh by scoring his first goal on his first shot. Reported attitude problems and losing the ability to quickly move the puck seemingly overnight have made Pouliot spend a majority of his career in the AHL, despite his overwhelming potential. However, in an interview with The Trib, Rutherford said, “Pouliot finished the season real strong.  We feel he’s going to come in and play,” However, if the Pens were to keep Maatta, then the top 6 would include Letang, Schultz, Dumoulin, Maatta, Cole, and Hunwick. I don’t see where Pouliot fits in. I think the kid deserves a shot and also think that he is probably better than Matt Hunwick is, but again Hunwick’s contract makes it hard for me to think that he’ll be sitting many games. To be quite frank, I do not know what the Pens will do with Pouliot if this same roster is intact. Maybe he’s traded, maybe he spends time at practice and in the press box, maybe he takes Hunwick’s spot, or maybe he’s forced to spend yet another season in Wilkes-Barre.

Only time can tell what will happen to the Penguins Defense come October. No matter what does happen, a healthy Kris Letang makes the Pens defense one to reckon with next year.

Hunwick An Underrated Find For Penguins

The Penguins definitely lost more firepower than they acquired this offseason. Losing names like Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley due to their seeking of bigger money elsewhere wasn’t an aid to the Penguins chances at a three-peat.

They acquired a few new players via offseason moves and resigned a few of their current free agents to deals. None of the signings were spectacular but the signing of Matt Hunwick, in particular, was one I’m a big fan of.

The Penguins signed Hunwick to a 3-year deal at $2.25 AAV.

To the average hockey fan, many won’t recognize the name and wonder why he got a decent chunk of money. The Penguins, in a big way, needed to find NHL capable defensemen without paying an arm and a leg. Hunwick is a great fit.

Hunwick won’t knock anyone’s socks off with his goal scoring ability, or lack there of, from the blue line. His career high is six, which he did twice. But those two seasons were his first and second full seasons in the NHL. His 19 points last year were his second highest aside from his first NHL season.

He will remind you a lot of Brian Dumoulin in the sense that his lack of offensive scoring prowess is made up by his stellar defense. Much like Dumoulin, Hunwick has good puck moving abilities. Hunwick spent some time on the power play in Toronto last season so he has the ability to run it in a dyer situation.

He thrives as a penalty killing defenseman, something the Penguins wanted to replace in the loss of Daley.

Hunwick’s two most recent seasons in Toronto saw him block a career high shot total as well as his hitting totals went up. He’s not considered a “tenacious” defenseman but he seems to have an edge that if things get out of hand, he’ll have his hand in attempting to fix the problem.

If you watched any of the NHL Playoffs outside of the Penguins last season, specifically the Toronto and Washington first round matchup, there is a case to be made that Hunwick was Toronto’s best and most noticeable defenseman.

On a roster with young defenseman such as Jake Gardiner, Morgan Reilly, and Nikita Zaitsev, the 32-year old Hunwick was the one who had the most solid, all-around performance, earning himself the chance to make some money on the free agent market.

It’s very likely that Hunwick will be on the third defense pairing with Olli Maatta. Guys like Chad Ruhwedel and Derrick Pouliot would be next if the Hunwick experiment doesn’t work out. Both have shown flashes of being capable NHL defenseman which means that Hunwick will need instant production.

Another small tidbit about Hunwick is something that may impress you.

Hunwick’s 1.06 points/60 minutes at even strength were the highest of any defenseman on the roster last season outside of Kris Letang, who we know only played half the season due to injury.

The prime years for Hunwick are trending towards the end, but the Penguins do a fine job of bringing in “afterthought” defenseman (i.e. Justin Schultz) and turning them into very good blue liners. The potential to do the same in this situation is there as long as head coach Mike Sullivan deploys Hunwick in the correct way.

We all know how often Sullivan strikes gold with his new acquisitions. This, likely, will be no different.