How could he not, coming off his career season with the Oklahoma City Barons in the American Hockey League? It got even better when Hunt got engaged to his long-time girlfriend Katie in Maui back in early August.
It’s kind of hard to come into training camp without confidence following the year that was for the Maple Ridge, BC native.
When the Oilers signed Hunt in July of 2013, they expected him to be an offensive presence in the AHL, they just didn’t know exactly how much of one he’d be. He was coming off a 33-point season for the Chicago Wolves, but he blew away those numbers last year. Hunt posted 50 points (11-39-50) in 66 games with the Barons, quarterbacking the power play and becoming a driving force on the team’s run to the playoffs.
|Photo by Getty Images. |
“I think the surprising thing was how much he contributed down the stretch,” Oklahoma City Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson said. “It was the first time we’ve ever had a defenceman with over 50 points with the Barons.”
Hunt, 26, was named a Second-Team AHL All Star for his breakout season. Nelson gets friendly jesting from his players for not playing Hunt more at the beginning of the year. If he had, Hunt may have been named First-Team All Star.
“Matt Ford makes the joke and he tells Hunt, ‘If Nelly would have played you regularly at the start of the year, you would have been a First-Team All Star.’ So that’s the running joke,” Nelson said.
All jokes aside, the season didn’t start off as hot for Hunt. He struggled to find regular ice time because of the depth on the Barons blue line. The numbers eventually thinned out, and Hunt earned more consistent playing time.
“We had nine defencemen down there, so certain nights he was the odd-man out and he couldn’t get into a rhythm,” Nelson said. “Then once the season went on, we were down with our numbers and he played himself into being our top power play guy. For me, it wasn’t surprising that he put up numbers but it was surprising how many he put up. That was a career year for him.”
A career year that Hunt attributes to the confidence gained with the Oilers. Edmonton suffered some injuries and called up the defenceman on January 3, 2014. He made his NHL debut that night against Anaheim. Hunt played two more games with the Oilers before returning to the Barons. That’s when things took off.
“It was when I got sent down from here. I just got a lot of confidence from getting the call up here and I just felt really good and really comfortable with myself,” Hunt said.
|Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons |
“It’s a bit of a swagger I think,” Nelson added. “From there, he just kept on elevating his play.”
Hunt found his confidence was at a very high point following his stint in the NHL. Getting a sniff of hockey at that level motivated the third-year pro.
“I went down there (to Oklahoma City) and everything just seemed to kind of fall into place,” he said. “The bounces started going the right way and just the players I was playing with too, our team developed as a team. It was just that much easier to play when everybody was playing with confidence and confidence is contagious, and it just built as the season went into the playoffs.”
The first three months of the season, prior to his call up, Hunt scored 15 points (3-12-15). He recorded 14 points in the month of February alone, on his way to finishing the season on an 8-21-35 tear.
“I noticed growth throughout the year. Obviously, when you go up and get some NHL games under your belt you come back down with a lot of confidence,” Nelson said.
Depth will be the enemy of Hunt when it comes to making the Oilers roster this season. General Manager Craig MacTavish added three NHL veteran defencemen in the off-season (Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne and Keith Aulie). Increased depth means more competition for less spots. However, all Hunt is focused on is giving it his best shot.
“I left everything on the ice,” Hunt said. “I can only control the things I can control and that’s working hard, working smart and doing the things that got me here and that’s all I want to focus on. It’s just controlling the things that I can control and I just want to go out here and have a really good camp then go into the season with lots of confidence.”
Hunt continued, “I’ve got my fingers crossed because I really want to make this organization, but if not I won’t hang my head. I’m going to go down (to Oklahoma City) and do the best I can for the young guys if they need any help.”
His attitude has not gone unnoticed by Nelson.
“He definitely has more maturity. He’s a veteran defenceman for us but he’s not a 10-year guy, he’s still pretty young.”
If Hunt returns to Oklahoma City soon, it’s clear they will have a leader for their youthful blueline. But that time hasn’t come yet. Now in his second training camp with the Oilers, Hunt is just thankful for this opportunity.
“It’s a dream come true to be a part of this organization and a part of the NHL,” Hunt said. “This is only my second time in an NHL camp and I can’t express how happy I am to be here with this organization.”