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Q&A: Hunt Carving Out a Spot on Panthers Fourth Line

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Joel Quenneville hasn't had to tinker at all with his fourth line.

While the Florida Panthers coach has made some adjustments to the lineup throughout the first six games of the season, the hard-nosed trio of Noel Acciari, Colton Sceviour and Dryden Hunt has not only remained intact, but also become one of the team's go-to weapons late in games.

Despite starting just 30.56 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone at 5-on-5, the fourth line has succeeded in driving possession whenever they're on the ice. Over the 46:10 they've been deployed together, the Panthers have both outshot (33-23) and outscored (2-1) the opposition.

Additionally, Florida's goaltenders own a .957 save percentage when they're on the ice.

"I think the guys keep themselves around the puck," Quenneville said when asked about the line's success. "They protect it well and put it in areas they can sustain it. There's a lot of loose puck battles that they seem to find a way to win. Their responsibility defensively is something that we've relied on for faceoffs and starting in our own end. They find a way to get up the ice."

At the start of training camp, you likely could've penciled in both Acciari and Sceviour's names onto that line, with the third spot being up for grabs. A few days into camp, however, that spot seemed to become Hunt's to lose, as the fourth-year pro quickly caught Quenneville's attention.

"I thought Huntsy had an excellent start to camp," Quenneville said. "I thought he brought some energy, some physicality, directness and quickness. I think he adds that element to our team where the line he's on can bring us some personality, some energy and predictability."

Prior to this season, the 23-year-old winger had already had a few stints with the Panthers since he signed with the club as an undrafted free agent in 2016. In 2018-19, he made the most out of a late-season call-up, setting career highs in goals (3), assists (7) and hits (65) in 31 contests.

When asked about what he likes about Hunt on the fourth line, Quenneville said that he thinks he's brought "some pace to it, some simplicity." In six games, he's not only tallied one assist to while averaging 9:30 of ice time, but also currently leads the team with a whopping 18 hits.

Following Thursday's practice at the Panthers IceDen, FloridaPanthers.com's Jameson Olive had a chance to sit down with Hunt to discuss his road to the NHL and early-season success.

OLIVE: You've already had some big games since the season started, including racking up a career-high eight hits in Monday's 6-4 comeback win in New Jersey. From your own perspective, how have you felt out there?

HUNT: It's been going well. Obviously playing in six games in a row is nice, especially with the same guys every night. It helps with confidence and with chemistry. Our line's trying to bring a lot of energy to the team and trying to do whatever we can do to contribute with those fourth-line minutes. We're having a lot of fun.

OLIVE: Like you said, your line hasn't been touched since the season started. How do you think you were able to come together and generate that strong chemistry so quickly?

HUNT: I think we all just play a kind of simple game. Obviously Noel did a great job last year with the Bruins in kind of making his name and showing what he does, and Sceviour's been doing it for a while in this league. I'm just trying to break into the league and kind of find my role. I'm trying to go under Noel's wing and just do what he does. I think we all just bring a little something different to that line. Whether we're checking against teams' top lines or creating some energy, it's been working so far. It's been good.

OLIVE: What kind of progress do you think you've made over these first few games?

HUNT: I think the first couple games I was just trying to keep it as simple as possible and bring a ton of energy because you want to stay in the lineup and help the team win as much as possible. But now that we've played a few games here, I think we're starting to make some chemistry. Noel's got two goals, which is huge for us as a fourth line in terms of contributing.

OLIVE: In the final season of your junior career you were named MVP in the WHL after posting 58 goals and 116 points with the Moose Jaw Warriors. What's the journey been like going from being that type of player to a new role as more of a grinder in the NHL?

HUNT: It's obviously a different role than I'm used to playing. The NHL's the greatest league in the world and you'll play anywhere you can to stay up here. This is the role I'm on right now. I'm trying to make the most of it. It's also been a lot of fun. Things like closing out games is a lot of fun, and the challenge of playing against teams' top lines is really fun. I look at it that way.

OLIVE: How much help have your linemates been in making that transition?

HUNT: Just starting the year off with those two guys [Acciari and Sceviour] has helped a lot. They're great guys and easy to talk to. There are some high-pressure situations out there when you're playing against teams' top lines, and they just do a great job of staying even keeled.

OLIVE: Are there any other players that have offered any good advice?

HUNT: Troy Brouwer comes to mind. Playing with him a ton [last season] was a huge help for me just breaking into the league and staying even keeled. The NHL has a lot of ups and downs, so Brouw kind of kept me in check. I've actually been texting with Brouw quite a bit. He watches the games all the time and has sent me a few texts the last couple games. It's really nice to hear from him. He's been kind of a little bit of a role model for me.

OLIVE: You were one of the first players Quenneville mentioned early on in training camp when asked about which players were standing out early. How important was it to make a strong first impression like that?

HUNT: I think first impressions are huge, especially with a new coaching staff and a guy like Q who has a pedigree like he does. Obviously his presence is something you can feel when he walks into the room. A good first impression was a goal of mine, for sure. But you've also got to prove yourself every day, so I'm just trying to do that right now.

OLIVE: You were sent back to AHL Springfield toward the end of last season, so you missed out on meeting with Quenneville with some of the rest of your teammates in April. With that, how much were you looking forward to meeting him at training camp?

HUNT: I waited all summer [laughs]. I met him for the first time in camp. Like I said, his presence is like I've never seen before. He's very intense and knows the game super well. Anything I can take from him, I'll take.

OLIVE: Did your time in the NHL last season lead to any changes in your offseason training?

HUNT: Not really. I kept it the same. Obviously getting that taste last year just put a fire in my belly to make the team out of camp. I think it gives you a little bit of an advantage making it out of camp. You're more comfortable starting the season with the new coaching staff.

OLIVE: When it comes to focusing and taking a game-by-game approach to this season, does it help that you've already checked off a bunch of NHL career milestones already?

HUNT: I think last year there was always something I hadn't gotten. I don't want to say it weighed on me, but it's always in the back of your mind. Coming into the season fresh when you've already had your first game, first goal, all of those kind things, it helps a little bit. Now you've just to prove yourself every day.

OLIVE: Like a lot of your teammates, you spent a few seasons fine-tuning your game in the minors. How much do you think those 179 games in the AHL helped you develop?

HUNT: I think it makes you appreciate the NHL a lot more. Obviously when you grind it out for three years down there, every taste you get up here is just a little extra motivation to stay up here. That helps a ton. I think appreciation is the biggest thing. Every day in the NHL is a great day.

OLIVE: It's also probably a bit greater when you're playing in South Florida, right?

HUNT: Exactly. It's so nice. With the weather and wearing shorts to the rink every day, it definitely helps with the whole vibe. Yeah, it's good [laughs].

OLIVE: We had MacKenzie Weegar on the Territory Talk podcast last week and he told us that you're staying with him at his place right now. How's that living arrangement been?

HUNT: It's actually been really nice. It keeps you out of the hotel. He's got a kitchen there, but we don't use it that much [laughs]. It's nice to have a house, and he has a pool in the backyard. It's been fun living with Weegs in Fort Lauderdale.

OLIVE: If you don't use the kitchen, where are you eating?

HUNT: During training camp I went to Frank Vatrano's to eat quite a bit [laughs]. We stick to Italian usually. We try to mix it up as much as possible just because it's such a long season.

OLIVE: Now that you've spent almost 50 games in the NHL, have you thought about changing your number or are you sticking with the No. 73 jersey going forward?

HUNT: I was going to change it this summer. They asked, but I don't mind No. 73. It's not a terrible number. It's the first number they ever gave me, so I'm sticking with it.

*All advance statistics courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com

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