It seems like only yesterday that Hunter was among the best first-year players in the NHL -- a 25-goal scorer and 2004 Calder Trophy finalist with the New York Islanders at the age of 23.
Fast forward and Hunter has gone from a kid looking up to veterans like Michael Peca to a 30-year-old who has some of the Isles' kids looking up to him. He's never matched the offensive numbers he put up as a rookie, but has become a solid third-line forward who has enough offensive skill to get power-play time. He's also become one of the oldest players on a young, rebuilding team.
"I can't believe how fast time goes by," Hunter told NHL.com at Iceworks, where many of the Isles are working out before training camp officially begins next week. "It seems like I was just coming up from Bridgeport (the Isles' AHL farm team). I think this is my 11th training camp now. It's been a while."
Hunter played four games for the Isles in the 2002 playoffs, then played eight regular-season games in 2002-03 before cracking the lineup for good in '03-04. He has 98 goals and 225 points in 442 games -- and wonders where the time has gone.
"I remember there were a lot of older guys here when I first came up," he said. "I looked around today and there aren't too many guys here older than I am. But it's fun -- we've got a lot of good young players. Everyone gets along, and we have a good time."
Hunter knows that as one of the older Isles, he's expected to supply maturity and leadership as well as goals and assists -- though he downplays that part of his role, saying most of the young Islanders are pretty mature for their age.
"We do have a very young team," he said. "But the guys are pretty mature for their age; you don't need to say a lot. They're all very professional about what they do. If they do have any questions, or I see something that might be off a little bit, then I can offer some advice. But for the most part, they're pretty good."
Among those "pretty good" kids are forward Kyle Okposo
and center John Tavares
, a pair of first-round picks who will be counted on for bigger things if the Islanders are to return to the playoffs this season for the first time since 2007. Hunter is impressed with the way both players have dealt with the pressure of being high draft picks -- Okposo was chosen No. 7 in 2006, and Tavares, a record-setting scorer in juniors, was the top pick in the 2009 Entry Draft.
He's eager to see both of them, and other young Islanders like 2008 first-rounder Josh Bailey
-- continue to mature.
"You see these guys come up from Bridgeport (where Okposo played a half-season before coming to Long Island in 2008), and Johnny come out of juniors -- even last season, you could see a big difference from the start of the season to the end," Hunter said. "That's what makes the start of this season so much fun -- you want to see the next level these guys can get to."
The Isles improved 18 points -- to 79 points from 61 -- last season, but that still left them nine short of a playoff berth. Hunter thinks a return to the postseason is a possibility if some of the youngsters continue to grow and develop.
"We definitely made some big strides last year," he said. "We've got to take the next step this year. We have to be confident in ourselves, and we can't let teams try to push us around -- we have to stick up for each other and try to become an all-around solid hockey team both at home and on the road."
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist