Matt Hunwick entered free agency this summer coming off of a two-year stint in Toronto where he was well regarded for his play, praised by Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock for his veteran presence and served as an alternate captain for a young Toronto core.
Last season, Hunwick had 19 points (1G-18A) and a plus-8 rating in 72 regular-season games while averaging 25:38 minutes of ice time in Toronto's six playoff games.
Pittsburgh, looking to blunt some veteran departures on the blue line in Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey, signed Hunwick to a three-year deal with a $2.25 million average annual value.
"It was a tough decision to leave Toronto, but there was just a combination of factors that Pittsburgh had to offer," Hunwick said. "Between not only the city and the team itself, but their commitment to me in terms of term and their style of play as well came into it."
At this point in his career, a handful of aspects came into play when contemplating a new team. Pittsburgh, being about four hours from his native Michigan, was a good fit for Hunwick's wife and son as well.
Hunwick, 32, was drafted in the seventh round of the 2004 NHL Draft by the Boston Bruins out of the University of Michigan, where he served as captain his senior year. Hunwick came up with the Bruins, spending parts of four seasons with them. Hunwick also previously spent time with Colorado and the New York Rangers.
One of the reasons Hunwick was sought after by the Penguins is his ability to play his game on a consistent basis. For Hunwick, who has typically served as a third-pairing defenseman, his ability to bring consistent play and provide a reliable 18 minutes a night made him coveted target for teams seeking rearguards.
Another reason is that the 5-foot-11, 201-pound defenseman, while somewhat undersized, is an elusive skater who is capable of navigating the puck out of his own end. Hunwick plays a safe, well-rounded game and handles the puck well.
That sort of skillset has made him a capable fit in head coach Mike Sullivan's system, and another viable option to be deployed on the penalty kill. Playing a man down is something that really grew in Hunwick's game in the past two years, as his 3:08 shorthanded ice time per game with the Leafs was fourth among NHL defensemen over that span.
Being a prototypical good fit in the Penguins' system with his ability to push the pace is something that can't be overlooked in adjusting to his new team. Adapting one's game to a new system is one of the more difficult components of joining a new team.
"So far it's been good," Hunwick said. "I think at certain times I need to learn to be a little bit more aggressive. There's certainly a high pace that we want to play here, and an aggressiveness that we want to play with defensively. At times, I think I can be a little bit conservative, so just getting out of my comfort zone, and playing the way that they want."
While Hunwick is joining a new team, and the dynamic inside each locker room is different, after coming from a leadership role one of his biggest aspirations this year is to continue to be a good teammate.
"I think just try to be a good teammate," Hunwick said. "I think the biggest thing game to game is you always want to be a good partner. You want to be someone that your coaches can rely on, that your partner can rely on and trust in all situations."
Through the first six games this season Hunwick averaged 18:19 minutes per game and scored his first goal of the season on Oct. 12 against Tampa Bay. He's averaging over three minutes per game on the penalty kill for a unit that has impressive so far.
"I think he brings a physical element," Sullivan said. "I think he plays with an edge, he has great mobility, he helps us get out of our end zone, he's a good solid defender. What we've seen from Matt up to this point we really like. I think he fits into our style of play we're trying to play. He's everything that we expected when we signed him. He's a terrific person, he's a great teammate, I think he's great in our dressing room and I think he's fit in really well."
The veteran blueliner is looking to make the most of his time in Pittsburgh as he's signed through 2019-20.
"Overall, I felt pretty comfortable joining this group," Hunwick said. "I've felt better each and every game so far."