With Wideman gone, the Bruins lack a true puck-moving defenseman with the offensive ability to complement Zdeno Chara?s all-around game. Hunwick has the skills to fill that role on the second or third defensive pairing, but he has to prove he?s capable of performing on a consistent basis after struggling for much of last season.
After a strong rookie season in 2008-09, Hunwick?s sophomore campaign was marked by a serious regression. He was a team-worst minus-16 and had nearly three times as many giveaways (21) as takeaways (8). After scoring 27 points in just 53 games in 2008-09, Hunwick managed just 14 points in 76 games last year. He was second to Chara in goals by a defenseman with six, but did not score in his final 47 games, including playoffs.
"I didn?t feel like it was the smoothest year, both individually and obviously collectively," said Hunwick after the season. "I did feel I took strides at the end of the year and started to play my best hockey in April and May. That?s what you want. It?s tough sometimes throughout the season when things aren?t going well and the team?s not meeting expectations, it?s tough on everyone. But I felt that I got better as the season went on and hopefully I?ll come in next year and right from the start kind of pick up where I left off."
Hunwick, 25, did give reason to hope late in the year. It was actually a game in Toronto in early March when Chara was forced out of the lineup that gave Hunwick the change to turn his season around.
"I think there was a game in Toronto where Z wasn?t playing and I think we might have had four [regulars on] D, tops," recalled Hunwick. "So I was one of the only left D's and I felt like I played a lot more and it just gives you confidence when you go out there and you?re counted on."
Hunwick played 23:18 that night, the most ice-time he had had in over a month.
"When you know that you have to be good, it?s amazing how much better you play when expectations are higher and the team needs you," said Hunwick. "It?s easier to step up and be ready and focused and start to play your best. So I had a few games where I played a lot of minutes and kind of got some confidence and raised my own level of expectation to where I could play 20-plus minutes and do a pretty good job."
That bodes well for this season, as the Bruins are counting on Hunwick to log plenty of minutes and provide some speed and scoring from the blue line.
"I know we lost some puck moving in our back end," said general manager Peter Chiarelli after trading Wideman. Chiarelli expressed optimism in several defensemen being able to fill the void, including Hunwick. "I think Matt Hunwick is going to turn the corner," added the GM.
Hunwick may have already begun to turn that corner late last season. In his final 15 games starting with that night in Toronto, he managed just two assists but played with more poise and confidence and greatly reduced the turnovers that had plagued him most of the season.
That improved decision-making ability continued in the playoffs, where he added six assists in 13 games and was just a minus-1. He had just five giveaways in the postseason despite seeing his ice-time increase from 17:57 in the regular season to 21:56 in the playoffs.
"I was very comfortable in that role and obviously playing more I think helped my overall game," said Hunwick. "It?s tough when you?re playing 13 minutes, but being counted on to jump up in the play and do things when you?re not really in the game. But I think I?ve grown as a pro. It?s getting easier and easier to stay in the game even if you?re not playing, and hopefully the further I go the more I?ll play and my role will expand."
Hunwick will have the opportunity for an expanded role this season. He showed in the playoffs that he is capable of contributing on the power play. After averaging just 32 seconds a game on the man-advantage in the regular season, he played 2:54 a night on the power play in the playoffs and chipped in three assists while a man up.
"I felt like they gave me an opportunity," said Hunwick. "They gave me an opportunity on the power play. You still had to be kind of hesitant. You had to wonder if you make a mistake, are they going to take you out? But they stuck behind me and that gave me confidence to make some plays and not worry about that if you make one bad pass you?re going to get yanked."
The Bruins will need Hunwick to continue to use that creativity this season. Coach Claude Julien?s system doesn?t leave a lot of room for free-lancing or risk-taking, but he has loosened the reins a bit during his time in Boston and players like Hunwick have to be allowed a little freedom.
?With any system, you have to have everyone on the same page or else it?s not going to work no matter what it is,? said Hunwick, who was a healthy scratch six times last season. "Our system is pretty strict, but I feel that over the last couple of years it?s changed. It?s developed. It?s gotten more aggressive. There?s different stuff than we did when I first came here. A couple years ago I felt it was more conservative and a little more defensive. Defense is still our foundation, but I feel that we?re getting more aggressive."
Hunwick needs to be more aggressive himself and take better advantage of the opportunities he does get. He had just 60 shots on goal last year. That ranked 17th on the team, with everyone under him playing at least 20 less games than Hunwick did. He also had 26 missed shots, which meant he missed over 30 percent of his attempts. Getting off more shots and putting them on net will be the key to making the most of the chances Julien?s system does give defensemen.
?I think we were more aggressive down the walls and on our forecheck there was an emphasis on getting that fourth man up in the rush and getting the defense up,? said Hunwick. ?I?m not sure that was always the case, but it?s kind of the way the NHL is with the way guys backcheck. You?re always going to have at least one guy back, so you need a D or two to jump up.?
And the Bruins need a defenseman or two like Hunwick to step up this season.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Wednesday, Aug. 24: Can the Bruins find a way to get the power play going consistently this year?
Friday, Aug. 27: Will Johnny Boychuk thrive or be exposed in a full-time role over the course of a full season?