Grading the Islanders: Trent Hunter, winger of conscience and injury

Probably everyone agrees that Trent Hunter's 25-goal rookie season and impressive physical play created fan expectations that could not be met. Turns out 2003-04 was not a season to launch a power forward's career, but rather a misleading peak for a positionally sound winger with a deceptive shot.

It's not that Hunter couldn't score 20 goals again -- he scored at about that pace in 2008-09 -- it's that you'd rather have a deep enough team where you don't give him the prime minutes that would get him there: You want Hunter not as a first-line, first-PP-unit guy (in those minutes, I bet his shot gets him to 20 if healthy), but rather as a reliable winger you can count on not to blow tough assignments.

Hunter's lack of speed is the go-to complaint about him, but it's telling that coach Scott Gordon always cites Hunter as a guy who can play Gordon's system without the benefit of natural speed. And as Ben has carefully demonstrated, while Frans Nielsen carries the tough load, Hunter is the rare player who actually helps Frans Nielsen do his job even better at 5-on-5.

Maybe that data can change from year to year, but it hints at something: Hunter is a smart hockey player who limits damage by even the toughest competition. Just because his play isn't sexy doesn't mean he's not doing things, smart things, out there. If he and Frans can tread water against the best, that should free up the Islanders' young (and hopefully improving) scorers to do their damage against lesser opposition lines.

Of course one recent wild card with Hunter, who turns 30 this summer: Health...


Trent Hunter

#7 / Right Wing / New York Islanders

6-3

210

Jul 05, 1980

6

3 years, $2 million per

5.8* (actually 2.9* on 5-pt. scale)

Some health and luck will go a long way.


 

The Injury Question

After averaging 79.5 games in his first four full seasons, Hunter played only 116 games the past two years. There were muscle injuries, bone injuries, even a predatory Garden penalty box door -- you name it. He's also the type to try to play through injury, so we'll never know how much health has limited his effectiveness when he has played.

Sometimes I wonder if Hunter's physical style might make him susceptible to injuries -- though discerning health cause and effect in a single player's lifespan is a murky game. As anyone who's taken a puck to the face knows, sometimes the hockey gods have simply called your number. But look at Hunter's hit rate the past four seasons:

Season GP Hits Rk. among NYI F Hits/GP
2006-07 77 246 1st 3.19
2007-08 82 256 1st 3.12
2008-09 55 135 2nd 2.45
2009-10 61 126 2nd 2.07

Hunter's hits have gone down in the two seasons in which he got hurt. In his last full season, 2007-08, he was third in the league among forwards in hits. So when Hunter was his healthiest, he was also delivering the most checks. Did season after season of hits catch up to cause injuries? Or vice versa -- did that 08-09 run of injuries cause him to change his style to protect himself? Or is it, as some of you have suggested, simply a result of Gordon's scheme versus Ted Nolan's creating fewer opportunities to deliver checks?

Regardless, it's worth noting that Hunter has had more injuries in seasons where he's dialed back the contact. (And just to re-iterate: One could have nothing to do with the other. As anyone whose uncle happily smoked through age 90 knows, a single human body is a horrible sample size. Even worse so in a four-year snapshot.) You can say he's getting older, or that he's in his athletic prime.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG TOI PPtoi Hits SOG PCT
2009-10 - Trent Hunter 61 11 17 28 3 18 3 15:10 2:53 126 159 6.9


The Sell High Question

Some have argued, as a matter of efficient asset management, that the time to trade Hunter is now (or rather, was this past March). He is signed for three more seasons at $2 million per. Whether that raises or depresses a 15-ish goal scorer's trade value is in the eye of the beholder. But if there isn't a suitable return, I strongly suspect his absence would be one of those losses that is felt but not intuitively understood. In other words, Hunter is already trusted by the coaches to be what he is. Any "cheap young replacement" from the AHL would likely be someone trying to make a bigger impression -- someone who would cheat in order to score and secure his job. Someone who might match his goals, but not his responsibility.

Or to put it another way: Remove Trent Hunter from last year's lineup, and you've removed the forward who was on for the fewest goals-against-per-minute of 5-on-5 play. Maybe that's the Frans Factor talking, but Ben's research showed that it's not all attributable to Frans. So dumping him now isn't a risk I would take to get a late 2nd- or 3rd-round pick. His salary isn't exactly burdensome on a cap floor team. (By contrast, Bill Guerin made $2 million last year to score 21 goals (-9) next to Sidney Crosby, while Ruslan Fedotenko (-17) pulled in $1.8 million to scrape up 11 goals in 80 games.)

But another injury-plagued year paints me as the fool in that argument. You can look at Hunter's figures and see a guy who makes a positive difference, but you can also say he doesn't draw enough penalties or score enough to warrant his PP time.

 

The Shot

As mentioned above, Hunter has a deceptive shot. You've seen his goals -- you'd agree he can pick a corner with that wrister, no? But not often enough, it seems. Whether by limited speed or limited opportunity, he also sometimes takes shots from outside that don't appear to have a prayer.

Statheads will tell you very high and very low shooting percentage seasons are a factor of luck -- that a player's true talent is somewhere in the middle. In his two 20+ goal seasons, Hunter's shooting percentage was around 12% or higher; in his 11- and 12-goal seasons, it was under 7%. His career shooting percentage is 8.7%, which is a little under the rate he shot at when he scored 14 goals in 55 games two seasons ago.

 

The Poem

(by force of tradition, these continue)

Trent be physical
Trent be not quick
Trent look for magic in his hockey stick

When Trent checks less
Trent still checks more
Than most who skate through the Coli door

Trent is here
For three more year
More injuries are all he has to fear

The Grade

Think about what you expected before the season. Think about what you saw during. Grade our #7 accordingly.

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