By Jim Diamond
When a hockey coach announces the team’s starting lineup prior to a game, each name called usually elicits some positive cheers from his teammates. Tuesday night, there was a little something extra when Predators head coach Peter Laviolette called Brad Hunt’s name as one of the two starting defensemen.
“Everybody was yelling, “Huntsy, Huntsy,’” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “It was really good.”
Few players placed in a similar situation to what Hunt has experienced the last three months would have handled it with as much dignity and class as the 28-year-old defenseman has.
Claimed off of waivers from the St. Louis Blues on January 17th, Hunt has been a healthy scratch ever since, a stretch of 35 consecutive games with DNP – did not play – next to his name in the league’s statistics. That’s a long three months of just practices and extended work following morning skates. That can get old, and can get old quickly.
“If I would think about myself, it’s not the easiest situation and he’s handled it super well,” Rinne added. “It’s unbelievable his mindset. He works so hard. We were all really happy to see him get the ice time tonight and he did a really good job with Matty Irwin. I was really happy for the guy. He’s one of those guys who is an amazing teammate. He’s always in a good mood.”
At the time of Hunt’s waiver claim, the Predators were without the services of both Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, both out due to upper-body injuries, leaving the team hurting for blueliners. Soon after Hunt joined the team, Josi and Subban healed, leaving eight healthy defensemen on the roster.
Hunt’s last game played with the Blues was January 10th against Boston. His last goal, and only goal of this season, was December 13th, scored in Nashville against the Predators. It’s safe to say that most in attendance, media included, at Bridgestone Arena Tuesday night would not know Hunt if they were standing next to him.
Not having a next game to look forward to, a player can easily become a malcontent and make things difficult for all around him. That didn’t happen in Hunt’s case.
“It was really good,” Laviolette said. “This is a kid that has worked hard every day for a few months now just waiting for a game, waiting to get his number called and he did tonight. It was great to see him because it was our first look at him inside of a game. He’s a real good skater, a good puck mover. I think just getting him out on the ice and getting eyes on him was important again as we move forward towards the postseason.”
Having already clinched a spot in the playoffs, the game did not mean a whole lot for the Predators, but they are still jockeying for position in the Western Conference standings. They have an outside chance of catching the St. Louis Blues for third place in the Central Division, meaning they would play the Minnesota Wild in the opening round of the playoffs. There is a better chance that they can catch and surpass the Calgary Flames for the first wild card spot, which would match the Predators with the first-place team in the Pacific Division, currently the Anaheim Ducks.
Hunt’s stat line for the game won’t blow anyone away – no points in 16:29 of ice time with a couple of blocked shots. But his appearance did give the coaching staff a look at what he could do against another team, and it gives them another option going into the playoffs.