PITTSBURGH – As the pucks splash the ice and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Saturday morning skate gets underway, Matt Hunwick glides over to the boards to shake hands with Mike Babcock, his former coach and a man who tried to keep the defenceman in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform this season.
"We were always impressed by him. We tried to sign Hunny again," says Babcock. "He got a better deal here in Pittsburgh. That’s what you gotta do as a player. I was real excited for him when he got a three-year deal here."
Toronto essentially swapped out the 32-year-old Hunwick on July 1 for another veteran, stay-at-home, left-shot, penalty-killing defender in Ron Hainsey, who left the Penguins with an expired rental agreement soaked in champagne.
Hunwick says he had multiple suitors as a free agent, beyond Toronto and the two-time defending champions. He ultimately signed with Pittsburgh for three years and $6.75 million.
"We talked to quite a few teams," says Hunwick, now on his fifth NHL team and fourth in five seasons. "There’s a lot of factors that go into it. I wanted to go to a good organization, a team that had a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup, and I thought this was one that had that opportunity."
The Leafs inked Hainsey, 36, for a relative bargain: two years and $6 million. You have to believe term was a significant factor when Toronto did not retain Hunwick, who served as an alternate captain.
"A real intelligent player, good person. I think Hunny was so important for us kinda like Hainsey is. His first two years when we were going through lots of players and figuring things out, he was a real role model for people," Babcock says.
A fixture in Toronto’s top pair and essential to its penalty kill, Hainsey is playing his off-side and has made good on the plan to unlock the offensive threat within 23-year-old partner Morgan Rielly, who has 19 points already and is on pace to eclipse his career-high of 36.
"Him and Patty Marleau have been like newfound gold for us," Babcock says. "When you come to a younger team in particular, as a veteran player you have a real quality chance to have a major impact if you’re a good human being and you do it right every day."
Hainsey also has a voice, on and off the ice. The "A" on his sweater may be invisible, but with 936 NHL games and a Stanley Cup ring that he’ll receive from the Penguins after Saturday’s game, he’s undoubtedly a leader in the Leafs’ room.
Babcock says Hainsey barks so loud on the ice, you can hear him the press box. Hainsey also approached the coach this week to discuss some undisclosed matters regarding the team. That carries weight.
Hunwick is now chasing the glory Hainsey tasted in Pittsburgh — and, hey, he’s hot off scoring his first 3-on-3 overtime winner Thursday versus the Islanders — but he looks back fondly on his Leafs days, and made a point to hang round PPG Paints Arena Saturday morning to catch up with the club’s trainers and coaches.
"Making the playoffs last year and seeing the support we had, it was pretty special," Hunwick says of Toronto. "I really enjoyed my time there and the fan support. It was my third Original Six team. I’ve had the good fortune of playing for some really good organizations. It’s no different in Pittsburgh."
Over in the visitors’ room, Hainsey — who famously never participated in the playoffs until Jim Rutherford surrendered a second-round pick and prospect Danny Kristo to pry him from Carolina — is asked if his four months as a Penguin changed how outsiders perceive him.
"It certainly couldn’t hurt," Hainsey deadpans.
"If someone’s going to step up and trade for you at the deadline, part of you wants to make it worth their while, whatever they’re giving up to bring you in. Because it is a short period of time. You could be out [of the playoffs] in 10 days or you could be there two months. So having it work out like it did was certainly the best-case scenario."
Hainsey is reluctant to drive down memory lane, though. He’d rather focus on his new colours. He has a job to do.
On the significance of slipping on a Cup ring after tonight’s buzzer?
"It’s a little deep for a Saturday morning," Hainsey says.
"Obviously a special group over there, a special place. We got a game at 7, though. Get it going."