Matt Hunwick’s tenure with the Colorado Avalanche has been hit or miss to say the least. Advertised as an offensive defenseman, Hunwick didn’t score a goal in the 2010-2011 campaign. In fact, it took him 63 games to score his first goal as an Av. Heading into Tuesday’s game against Calgary, Hunwick had 3 goals and 2 assists in 25 games. He’s not exactly lighting up the scoreboard, but he's making an enormous difference on the ice nonetheless.
In Matt Hunwick's 25 games this season the Avalanche are 15-8-2. That’s a 0.6 win percentage. That’s 32 of 50 possible points. Expand that over the Avs' 74 games this season, and they would have 94 points, good for 2nd in the Western Conference. Of course, it would be foolish to assume that these numbers--104.96 points over a season--are all Hunwick related. He’s benefitted from playing during each of J.S. Giguere's and Semyon Varlamov’s respective hot streaks. These numbers do suggest, however, that the Avs are a better team when Hunwick is in the lineup, and I would like to suggest that Matt Hunwick, and his turbulent Avalanche career, are an indication that Greg Sherman has the Avs right on track to win a Stanley Cup.
Lets take a step back to late December. On December 29th, Mike Chambers of The Denver Post ran an article "Avalanche’s Quincey hates being a healthy scratch" (Link). Kyle Quincey was scratched for 6 consecutive games this season. The first 2 were because of a groin injury. The latter 4 were because the team was on a substantial win streak, and Sacco didn’t want to shake up a successful lineup. In Chambers' interview with the former Avalanche defenseman, Quincey said, "It's hard to root for your team, and try to help your team, be part of the team, when you're just sitting. (Tuesday) night we lose, so now I get a chance. If we keep winning, I don't get a chance." Quincey even went so far as to suggest that he may not seek treatment for future injuries. "If I didn't say anything, I wouldn't have missed those six games," he said. "You're trying to play through injury, trying to play your best, but it's better than coming out of the lineup because you don't get back in."
It took 4 games of press box nachos for Kyle Quincey to put himself before the team. After only 4 games, Kyle Quincey was willing to question the team’s medical and coaching staff publicly. He was traded less than 2 months later. Kyle Quincey, however, is not an anomaly; in fact, he seems to be the norm for Avalanche trades of late.
In the last three years, every player with a questionable attitude, a mediocre work ethic or even a rumoured "me-first" mentality has been unceremoniously shipped out the door.
Wojtek Wolski, Chris Stewart, Kyle Quincey, T.J. Galiardi, Colby Cohen, Craig Anderson, and Brandon Yip. Every one of these players had success in an Avalanche uniform. Some were fan favorites, and a few showed flashes of All-Star talent. But every single one also had their work ethic or attitude questioned by the mainstream media at one point in their Avalanche tenure.
Now, the players Greg Sherman has acquired:
- Jamie McGinn led his team in hits and was praised by fans as one of the team’s hardest workers.
- Steve Downie was a fan favorite in Tampa for sacrificing his body for the team, protecting his line mates, skating hard every shift and finishing every check.
- Peter Mueller has worked his way back from a serious concussion and is Colorado’s Masterton Trophy nominee.
- Brian Elliott is a Masterton nominee for the St. Louis Blues. After the worst season of his career, Elliott turned things around in St. Louis and even made the All-Star game in Ottawa.
- Erik Johnson spent the summer training in Denver. He worked so hard on himself and with other Avs in the off-season, the mainstream media had him pegged as the most likely Avs captain.
And then there’s Matt Hunwick. While Kyle Quincey sat 4 games as the healthy scratch before complaining to the media, Matt Hunwick sat in the Avalanche press box 49 times this season. He’s watched Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie leapfrog him into the lineup, and by all accounts, he’s kept his head down and worked hard every practice to get back on the ice. Matt Hunwick has not complained; he has not whined to the media. He has just done his job night in and night out, and he has been rewarded not just with ice time, but with a winning record.
With Hunwick in: 15-8-2 .6 Win Percentage 104 pt season pace
With Hunwick out: 24-22-3 .48 Win percentage 85 pt season pace
Now this isn’t to say that Matt Hunwick is a guy who will win the Avs a Stanley Cup. He isn’t. He is a #6-7 defenseman who has played over his head of late. With Siemens, Elliott, Guance, and Barrie on the Avalanche's horizon, he may very well find himself on the outside looking in, playing for a bottom feeder like the Islanders, the Jackets or the Oilers, or lacing up for Battle of the Blades (which he could probably win). However, Matt Hunwick’s time in an Avalanche uniform, re-signed or not, is a sign that Greg Sherman is not just committed to winning, but to building a dynasty.
Greg Sherman is not interested in free loaders, enigmas or party boys playing leading roles on the team. You will never see a Jeff Carter in an Avalanche uniform. Dany Heatley will never wear the A. Ilya Kovalchuk? Didn’t even get an offer from the Avs. Matt Hunwick and, to a lesser degree, Cody McLeod, are an indication that this mentality applies to every man on the roster, not just the team's "leaders." From top to bottom, Greg Sherman, Rick Pracey and Co. are looking for players who are 100% committed to their team and who know what it takes to win. It’s in our signings (Shane O`Brien, J.S. Giguere), our draft picks (Ryan O`Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog) and our trades, but it is most apparent in our bottom six and bottom pairing D. Cody McLeod and Matt Hunwick are not the most talented players in the NHL, and frankly, the Avs could have "upgraded" both positions easily in the offseason. Every year teams sign guys with high end skill sets and low end work ethic. Why not take a chance on a Jonathan Cheechoo, Marco Sturm, Alexei Ponikarovsky, or Niclas Bergfors? Greg Sherman would rather have guys like Matt Hunwick and Cody McLeod, guys who may have less talent, but who hold themselves and their teammates accountable whether they're in the lineup or not. Sherman wants the kind of guys who’s work ethic can inspire a locker room from everywhere, not just his top lines. When most guys are working hard, you can win 48% of the time, but when every player is accountable, from your top line center to your #6 defenseman, you can win 60%. Matt Hunwick will never win a Norris Trophy. He may not even get another Avalanche contract, but his accountability is infectious. He IS the kind of player who, with hard work alone, can propel a team to 15-8-2.
Plain and simple, Greg Sherman isn’t just acquiring players with the skillsets to win games. He’s building a culture of winning from the locker room out, and he’s building a Stanley Cup champion with character first. Matt Hunwick's time as an Av may be drawing to a close, but Greg Sherman will fill this team with players like him for years to come.