This season, Kris Versteeg, Derick Brassard, Steve Mason, Pekka Rinne, Bobby Ryan, Blake Wheeler, Drew Doughty and Luke Schenn all have made strong cases for themselves. Versteeg has stayed atop the scoring chart and probably is the leading candidate.
There was a time in December, however, when Matt Hunwick of the Boston Bruins was a strong candidate. Hunwick, a University of Michigan graduate, started the season with the AHL Providence Bruins, but was recalled Oct. 13 when the big club traded Andrew Alberts to the Philadelphia Flyers. Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference were hurt for two months each, and Hunwick took a regular turn on the Bruins' blue line, and saw time on the power play and the penalty kill.
Hunwick played 35 games for the Bruins before the NHL All-Star Game in late January, but only five since. His 19 points still rank second among NHL rookie defensemen, but Hunwick has a new role. He's skating at left wing on the first line with center Marc Savard and right wing Phil Kessel. His role will change again, probably this week, when Milan Lucic returns after missing Saturday's game against the Washington Capitals and Tuesday's game against the Flyers.
Hunwick had a goal and an assist in Saturday's 4-3 overtime loss to the Capitals and he's had 4 points in two games at forward. Not bad for the 2005 CCHA Defensive Defenseman of the Year. Hunwick got the Bruins' first goal Saturday, a goal-mouth conversion off a nifty Savard pass.
"To go to the net, to have an opportunity to score, it was just one of those plays where I had my stick on the ice, and everybody knows 'Savvy' is a great passer," Hunwick said. "So I knew if I got to an area where he could find me, it was going to be on my tape.
"It wasn't something I was expecting coming in here … but it was a lot of fun. Phil has a lot of speed, and 'Savvy' can find you just about anywhere on the ice, so I knew if I got out there and was able to get open, they were going to find me."
It's been said you go to college not only to learn the subject matter but also to learn how to learn. Hunwick said playing for Red Berenson at Michigan was a great education.
"I played four years there and matured a lot," Hunwick said. "Coach Berenson is a big believer in playing four years and getting your degree. He says you want to dominate a level before you leave and go on to something bigger. That's what we tried to do. Most of the players stayed four years and tried to be the best we could at that level before moving on.
"He was a great teacher of the game and a good person as far as teaching us the ways of life and putting importance on school. You can see how many players graduated. It was big to him and I think it will be big to a lot of players when they look back in 10 or 15 years and they're really happy that they have that degree."
The Bruins had Hunwick slated for a second season at Providence in 2008-09, but he had other plans.
"I was down there for six or seven days but I was brought up after Andrew Alberts was traded and I played right away when I got up here," Hunwick said. "Then I sat out for close to three weeks. The injuries to Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward opened up some opportunities -- not only for myself, but for the other defensemen. Also, it opened up a little power-play time and also some penalty-killing time, which is something good for my development. When those guys came back, that role was scaled back again. At this point, I think it's been good for my development."
Hunwick gives a lot of credit for his development as a professional to Scott Gordon, his coach at Providence last season and now the coach of the New York Islanders.
"I think last year was huge as far as development," Hunwick said. "I had an opportunity to come up here the first half of the season and get some games in with these guys. Right after Christmas and the New Year, I was sent down and that's where I played the rest of the season. That was one of the best things that could have happened to me as far as just playing in all situations and getting a lot of ice time. We had really good teams, in Boston and Providence, so it made it fun playing every night. I think in the playoffs that was another step for me as far as my development and gave me some momentum coming into training camp this season."
"That was big, coming up here and seeing the speed and knowing exactly what the coaching staff wanted specifically, then going down and working on my overall game," Hunwick said. "The systems don't always seem to be the same, going up and down. I think the biggest thing is just the ice time and playing in all situations down there.
"We had a really good team and a good defense, but come playoff time they were able to use me in all situations and I was able to play a lot. That was a big benefit for me. Also, being there gave me kind of a head start coming into training camp this year because there wasn't a learning curve. I was able to come in and prepare and over the summer get ready. On the mental side, I think I knew exactly what they wanted. And I made it easier on myself."
Wired for success -- The Buffalo Sabres are 3-5-2 since Thomas Vanek got hurt Feb. 7 at Ottawa and 0-2-1 in their last three games. They have fallen to ninth in the Eastern Conference, so they'll be glad to see Vanek back in the lineup Wednesday night against the Canadiens at HSBC Arena.
Vanek was third in the NHL with 32 goals and was the League leader in power-play goals with 15. He's now eighth overall and third on the power play.
Wait, there's more -- The Toronto Maple Leafs tied an NHL record Tuesday by playing in their seventh consecutive overtime game when they lost to the New Jersey Devils, 3-2, on Johnny Oduya's goal with 11 seconds left.
The streak started Feb. 19 with a 4-3 shootout loss against Columbus. The Maple Leafs then lost 3-2 in a shootout to Vancouver on Feb. 21. They downed the New York Rangers, 3-2, in overtime on Feb. 22, and beat the Rangers again three days later, 2-1, in a shootout. They beat the Islanders, 5-4, in a shootout Feb. 26 and beat lost, 4-3, in overtime Feb. 28.
Pavel Kubina moved into fourth place all-time among NHL defensemen with his sixth overtime goal Feb. 28. It was his second overtime goal of the season. Scott Niedermayer leads with 11 overtime goals and Brian Leetch and Tomas Kaberle are next with seven overtime goals.
Like Fleming Mackell -- Fleming Mackell is famous in NHL lore for playing in an NHL All-Star Game before he ever appeared in a regular-season game.
Mackell was a Maple Leafs rookie in 1947, when the preseason NHL All-Star Game matched the Stanley Cup winner against an NHL All-Star team made up of players from the other five clubs.
Maple Leafs rookie Tim Stapleton had a somewhat similar experience last week. He scored the shootout winner against the Islanders and, two nights later, scored his first NHL goal against the Senators. Shootout goals don't count in a player's season totals.
Stapleton, a free agent who played the past two seasons in Finland, was the leading scorer for the AHL's Toronto Marlies, with 54 points and a plus-8 rating.
Mackell played only three games that season for Toronto, but was a member of their Stanley Cup teams in 1949 and '51. Mackell's father, Jack, won the Stanley Cup with the Ottawa Senators in 1920 and '21, his only two seasons. They are believed to be the first father-son duo to win the Stanley Cup as members of NHL teams.
Third-quarter standings -- The Bruins continued to be the Northeast's best team in the season's third quarter (games 41-61). Boston had a record of 11-5-4 for 26 points, followed by the Senators, 9-7-4, 22 points; Sabres, 10-9-1, 21 points; Maple Leafs, 7-7-6, 20 points; and Canadiens, 7-12-1, 15 points. Boston scored 12 more goals than they allowed, 57-45; followed by Buffalo at plus-6, 62-56; Ottawa, minus-2, 54-56; Toronto, minus-13, 59-72; and Montreal, minus-20, 55-75.
News and Notes -- Jaroslav Halak was outstanding in winning four consecutive games for the Montreal Canadiens, but he was felled by the flu and missed Wednesday's game against the Sabres. Carey Price returned to the net for the first time since Feb. 19, a 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Price was 2-8-1 with a 3.81 goals-against average and .864 save percentage since returning from an ankle injury Jan. 20 before Wednesday night. ... Alex Tanguay, out since Dec. 30 with a separated shoulder, could return Friday in Atlanta or Sunday in Dallas. ... Jason Blake has a sense of humor -- Blake skated up to coach Ron Wilson at practice, shook his hand and disappeared into the dressing room while the rest of the Maple Leafs continued to practice. Reporters who rushed to the room found Blake, his equipment and his locker-stall name tag removed, leading them to believe he'd been traded. Gotcha! ... The Sabres' 10:30 a.m. skate Monday was postponed and the team watched video for nearly an hour at 12:30 p.m., and then went on the ice for a long practice ... The Bruins have lost eight of their past 11 games.