It was a moment Dryden Hunt had long envisioned.
After spending the majority of his junior hockey career overlooked and undervalued, battling through injuries and passing over during his years of draft eligibility, the Moose Jaw Warriors’ breakout star suddenly found himself at the center of a bidding war between several NHL clubs vying for his services.
As a free agent, Hunt was in the unique position of choosing the next path to take in his NHL career, and in the end, the allure of the Florida Panthers was simply too much to resist.
"I spent a lot of time going through team’s depth charts and seeing where I kind of fit in and that kind of thing," said Hunt, who signed an entry-level contract with Florida on March 2. "It was really exciting to see all of the young talent they have and how good they’re going to be in the future."
“I think whatever league or level you’re at, you want to win. That’s my goal and I know that’s Florida’s goal. They’ve got a pretty big future ahead of them.”
The future, up until only recently, was something that had looked fairly bleak for Hunt ever since breaking into the Western Hockey League with the Regina Pats in 2011-12. As a rookie, he posted just five goals and five assists in 62 games. The following season, multiple injuries sidelined him for all but two contests, hampering his development and keeping him off the pre-draft radar of NHL teams.
“It was tough,” said Hunt, who was traded to the Medicine Hat Tigers midway through the 2014-15 season and then dealt to Moose Jaw just before the current campaign. “I’ve played in this league for so long and seen so many guys [get drafted] that I’ve battled against and competed against was hard.
“It was tough those two years, but it couldn’t have paid off any better. I mean, good for those guys who got drafted, but playing five years and kind of overcoming everything definitely made me a stronger person in the end.”
A stronger player both mentality and physically, the 6-foot, 201-pound Hunt recently finished his final regular season of junior hockey as the WHL’s leader in goals (58) and second in points (116). He was selected to the WHL’s First All-Star team and shared Moose Jaw’s Player of the Year honors with team captain Brayden Point.
“I kind of wanted to make a statement and have a big year,” Hunt said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates here in Moose Jaw, and to end up signing an NHL contract was obviously a dream. To do that in my final year, I’m thrilled.”
Already named the WHL’s Player of the Month in January, Hunt believes that although he had been steadily producing throughout the season, NHL teams really began to take notice of his ascension in February, when the 20-year-old winger posted a jaw-dropping five hat tricks in eight games.
“That’s when the attention kind of blew up,” Hunt recalls. “I was kind of the unknown. I came into the season wanting to have a good season as a 20-year-old and make lasting impression. It was obviously nice to get the recognition.”
Now, as he prepares to closeout his WHL career with a good playoff run, Hunt admits that he’s already begun to look ahead to the next journey that lies before him. No longer the enigmatic player he once was, Hunt is aware that although it only took one great season to earn a contract, it will take many more to earn a spot in the NHL.
“I think a team signs you and puts the trust in you and you want to show that they made a good decision,” said Hunt, who will face the Prince Albert Raiders in the first round of the WHL playoffs on Friday. “As you go up in levels, you kind of keep starting over from scratch, so you’ve got to prove yourself in every league.
“I’m just going to try and prove myself at every level and work my hardest and make (the Panthers) realize that they made a good choice.”