Prior to the 2021-22 season, Hunt, then 25 years old, had previously played for the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes, never appearing in more than 31 NHL games in a season (which he did with Florida in 2018-19, tallying three goals and seven assists). The thought going into 2021-22 was that he could provide some fourth-line depth for the Rangers, helping with respect to shot suppression when he did draw into the lineup.
Those expectations soon got thrown out of whack, however, when injuries and a lack of depth at the top of the lineup caused head coach Gerard Gallant to move Hunt up to the top-six for large swaths of the regular season. While Hunt also spent a good chunk of time on the fourth line with Kevin Rooney and Ryan Reaves, he spent about 290 minutes across parts of 38 games on the second line with Ryan Strome and Artemiy Panarin. This was by far the most common deployment for Hunt; he only spent 168 minutes over parts of 28 games with Rooney and Reaves, and then under 50 minutes total with Filip Chytil and Julien Gauthier.
Hunt’s role devolved back to pre-season expectations after the Rangers acquired Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, and Tyler Motte at the 2022 trade deadline. But his ample time spent on the second line creates skews the picture with respect to evaluating his performance.
Hunt finished the season with career highs in games played (76, far eclipsing his previous career high of 31), goals (six), assists (11) and penalty minutes (52). Of course, when someone spends as much time in the top six as Hunt did, you’re looking for better point totals.
As such, Hunt might have seemed like a disappointment and an easy target for criticism among some fans, but the fact of the matter is that he was placed in a role that did not suit him. Hunt’s lack of offense was glaring, but his shot-suppression abilities — which aligned with what fans could reasonably expect from him going into the season — nevertheless shone through.
The above player card perfectly encapsulates what Hunt is, and what he was able to remain as despite being miscast on the second line for such a large portion of the season: someone who cannot drive offense but will help a team limit its chances against. I.e., a decent fourth-line player who at the very least can eat some minutes while your team’s bona-fide offensive threats get some necessary rest. His actual offensive GAR (goals above replacement) was worse than his expected GAR; while the latter was still below average, the disparity versus the former highlights Hunt’s inability to finish on scoring chances, which was another reason why he was a poor fit with playmakers like Ryan Strome and Artemiy Panarin.
Despite being mostly a non-factor offensively and not being a gifted finisher, Hunt managed to shed those labels when he scored the Rangers’ last goal of the regular season — a beauty that held up to be the game-winner:
Author Grade: B-
Banter Consensus: C
For most of 2021-22, Hunt was thrust into a role for which he was ill-equipped. While he did not perform to the level that such a role requires, he is absolved of much of the blame since said role was not a reasonable expectation for him coming into the season, and only came to be because of injuries, a lack of depth, and Gallant deciding so. (He also should not have been in the lineup over Kaapo Kakko in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, but A) that was again not his fault, and B) I should digress before I get upset again.)
At the end of the day, an ideal fourth-line player would not only help suppress chances against, but would also help create a few more offensive chances in that role, even if the scoring isn’t prolific. While offense was a struggle no matter where Hunt was in the lineup, he was at least pretty strong defensively across the entire season, which is more than can be said for some of the Rangers’ other fourth-liners. Hopefully in 2022-23, Gallant and the Rangers deploy Hunt in a fourth-line role that better suits his skill set, as he can be an effective player when utilized properly.
Note: All advanced stats and line combination data courtesy of Evolving Hockey unless otherwise noted.