What does Toronto look like without Matt Hunwick?

Updated: March 8, 2016 at 2:15 pm by Adam Laskaris

Matt Hunwick is kind of like the NHL-level equivalent of a rent-a-player. He plays a lot, but mostly because he’s willing to and physically can, not because he’s exceptionally talented. Today, it was announced Hunwick was shut down for the rest of the season with a sports hernia injury. Frankly, Toronto might be better off without him.

There’s a lot of things to like about Hunwick- he’s an assistant captain, praised as a good leader by his teammates, and brings a veteran presence to a young team. But Hunwick might be the worst regular player on the team, and with the Leafs currently being at the bottom of the NHL standings, he’s probably in consideration for the bottom few percentage points of NHL talent in the league. And yet, he’s not just a regular – he’s picked up the second most ice time on the team at 5v5 this year, less than only Morgan Rielly, his most common defensive partner. 

With Hunwick out of the lineup, the Leafs lose a TOI monster. But looking at how the team performs without Hunwick, that might not be the worst thing for a team on a five-game slide. Of course, wins at this point don’t matter much as the Leafs are draft lottery-bound, but from a purely statistical standpoint, Hunwick’s absence makes the Leafs a far better hockey team.

Hunwick’s Inexplicable Usage

There’s a fairly frequent, recurring debate on Twitter about why Hunwick gets played so much. He’s currently clocking in at 22:34 of ice time a night in all situations, over four minutes above his career average. That’s a little over a period a game. Hunwick isn’t a spectacular player in the stats column (fancy or traditional) and doesn’t have a reputation around the league as a shutdown defender. He’s never really been used as a top D-man before this season.

Some theorize head coach Mike Babcock likes Hunwick and legitimately thinks he’s a good defenceman.

Others think he’s just a stopgap guy with experience in a lost season. Some even think the Leafs are intentionally playing Hunwick as much as possible as a subtle tanking maneuver.  

In reality, we don’t really know why Hunwick was played as much as he is with Toronto – there’s no one clear answer. What is clear is that he was just not very good in his role this season with the Leafs. Or he was perfect at it, depending on what the Leafs want from him.

The Hunwick-less Leafs

I made this chart looking at a few different statistical categories and how Hunwick stacks up on the ice, compared to how the Leafs do when he’s off the ice.

Hunwick
Leafs

(including Hunwick)

Leafs

(without Hunwick)

Shots 

(For/Against, SF%)

496/593 

(45.5 %, 30th)

1526/1569 

(49.3%, 18th)

1030/976

(51.3 %, 11th)

Goals 

(For/Against, GF%)

29/47

(38.1%, 30th)

98/123 

(44.4 %, 28th)

69/76

(47.6%, 20th)

Corsi 

(For/Against, CF%)

974/1087

 (47.2%, 28th)

3024-2828

 (51.7%, 10th)

2050/ 1741

(54.0 %, 2nd)

(All stats at 5v5 – via war-on-ice.com & stats.hockeyanalysis.com. For the ‘Hunwick’ column, the ranking indicates where Hunwick’s numbers would be if he was an NHL team. For example, his Corsi For % matches up with Arizona, the 28th ranked NHL team.)

Hunwick’s offensive zone starts compared to his defensive zone ones come at a 306/408 rate, while the Leafs themselves come at a 1009/1010 raw count, which is much more even. Hunwick hasn’t been gifted with great easiness on his shifts either, putting in the hardest competition on the Leafs regulars with his opponents averaging a 50.85% CF%. 

That much being said, nothing Hunwick’s done has suggested he’s capable of playing in this role on a competitive team. Either the Leafs are using him as much as they are because Babcock truly believes he’s doing good things, or management is pushing for heavy Hunwick minutes to get the best possible draft position.

Every other regular Leafs defender comes in at least a 50.1 CF%. Except for Hunwick, who’s at least three points lower than every one of his teammates. 

Here’s another quick chart Corsi For % of defensive partners when they play with and without Hunwick. 

With Hunwick Without Hunwick
Rielly (735 minutes) 47.8 54.2
Phaneuf  (119 minutes) 44.3 52.0
Polak (117 minutes) 39.6 50.4
Gardiner (49 minutes) 53.8 54.0

There are a few things you can infer from this chart.

A) Even in a short sample size, Jake Gardiner is a possession wizard and once again proves his ability to drag teammates along with him (which also can be shown by Dion Phaneuf’s 53.2 CF% with Gardiner and 48.8 CF % without).

B) Polak and Hunwick together are quite predictably bad.

C) Morgan Rielly really needs to get away from Hunwick.

It’s obviously not black and white why Hunwick plays so much, and coaching an NHL team isn’t just a matter of selecting a set amount of ice time for players and letting them play. But the numbers themselves are pretty jarring – the Leafs are much, much better in the approximately two-thirds of the game that Hunwick doesn’t play than when he does.

Looking at the various categories, the Leafs would be about six-eight NHL teams better if they used a team average player instead of Hunwick for all his minutes- with their goal differential increasing by 14 when rated for time on ice. 

But most shockingly, when Hunwick isn’t on the ice, they’re the second-best possession team in the entire league, behind only the Los Angeles Kings. So maybe the last-placed Leafs aren’t really all that awful? Maybe they just give an extremely large amount of ice time to an aging, very below-average defenceman- and in those other 38 minutes a night is where they compete.

The calculations themselves aren’t perfect, as we’re making some pretty big assumptions here (while not diving heavily into zone starts, quality of competition, etc). Obviously, you can’t just remove a player from the lineup and assume everything else will work out in the future like it has in the past. But regardless of its imperfections, one thing is clear – Hunwick this year was performing on a level so much lower than the rest of his team.

Conclusions

Was Hunwick single-handedly making the Leafs bad this season? No. Is he fit for a first-pairing role? No. Was he playing parts of this year injured? Maybe. But would acquiring a top-4 defender (or even finding one within the system) and taking Hunwick’s roster spot away significantly increase the Leafs’ quality? I wouldn’t rule it out. 

It might sound insane, but it’s not out of this world to think that if the Leafs simply rid themselves of Hunwick in the offseason for even an average player and allocate his minutes in a smart fashion, they could be competing for a playoff spot as early as next season. It’ll be interesting to see how the Leafs play the rest of the year without him, as this may validate or disprove the theory.

If the management regime looks for another Corrado or Marincin-type castoff in the offseason, or even finds someone within the system (Loov? Stuart Percy?) and takes Hunwick out of the lineup, that would be a smart move once the Leafs decide they’re ready to start competing. There’s obviously still quite a few holes in the roster to fill, but if Mike Babcock can coach the large majority of his players to be a great possession team, there’s no reason why he can’t replicate that success next season.

Once Hunwick’s time with the Leafs comes to an end, he’ll almost certainly be forgotten pretty quickly. Perhaps last night was his last night as an on-ice Leaf. But as a tank asset as the Leafs pushed for a spot in the NHL lottery, he might’ve just been the greatest one in the league this year.