Brad Hunt has flown under the radar as a candidate for the Edmonton Oilers’ blue line. To a degree, that makes sense: there are a bunch of high draft picks and guys with one-way contracts in the running to make the team, and the guy who stands 5’9” and never even got drafted doesn’t stand out against that group.
But it would be a mistake to forget about him entirely, because there’s a reasonable scenario that sees him make the team.
How he got to Edmonton
Hunt’s roots are in B.C. He was born in Maple Ridge, and played his junior hockey in Burnaby with the BCHL’s Express. A late-bloomer, he was a point-per-game skater in that league at age 19, which was enough to get him into Bemidji State University, where he was a teammate of current Flyers’ forward Matt Read.
His pro career started with the Vancouver Canucks’ farm team in Chicago. He had a cameo with the Wolves in 2011-12 and spent all of 2012-13 with the organization on an AHL contract. His time with the club included 19 games under the eye of Craig MacTavish, then the Wolves’ coach and now the Oilers’ general manager.
MacTavish took over hockey operations in April 2013; less than three months later Hunt was signed to his first NHL contract, an entry-level that pays him the league minimum in the majors and under $100,000 in the minors.
The point of all this? It’s pretty reasonable to draw a straight line between MacTavish and Hunt; that’s a pretty nice friend to have in the organization. It won’t make a difference if Hunt doesn’t play well enough, but it should keep him from getting overlooked if he does.
A very particular set of skills
Hunt was a revelation on the Oklahoma City Barons’ power play in 2013-14. The team finished third in the AHL with a 22.1 percent success rate; and Hunt scored nine goals manning the point and added 24 assists, meaning that he earned a point on 43.4 percent of Barons power play goals.
The Oilers already have Justin Schultz as a first unit power play defenceman, but Hunt brings something that Schultz doesn’t: a rocket shot and a willingness to use it. Hunt’s shot was clocked at 99.5 miles per hour at the 2013 AHL Skills Competition and he used it 170 times in just 66 AHL contests in 2013-14. Edmonton lacks a defenceman who can really rip the puck from the point; Hunt has that ability.
He’s also versatile. The Barons had a ton of left-shooting defencemen last season, so Hunt spent basically the whole year on the right side. As the seventh defenceman with an NHL team, that’s a pretty valuable asset – it means he can fill in on either side of the third pairing if injury opens up a spot.
Hunt’s size is a concern, of course, but it’s a concern somewhat mitigated by the offseason additions of Nikita Nikitin (6’4”, 217 pounds) and Mark Fayne (6’3”, 215 pounds) to the mix on the blue line.
There are five NHL veterans on rich one-way contracts with the Oilers at present. All will make the team. Martin Marincin isn’t quite a lock for one of the two remaining spots, but given what he did last season he’s a very good bet to take it.
That leaves just one job open. On a short-term basis, the Oilers could employ one of the star prospects (Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom) and rotate Marincin and the vets through the No. 7 slot. It’s not likely to be something the team is comfortable doing long-term, however, which means that barring trade or injury Edmonton will probably want an older player in the seven slot, somebody the team can scratch without harming his development. Naturally, the specifics change if Nurse or Klefbom beats Marincin out for a spot in camp, but it won’t change the fact that a cheap veteran is the preferred option in the No. 7 slot.
That’s why Keith Aulie—on a one-way, $800,000 contract—is expected to win the job. He’s 25 years old and has 136 NHL games under his belt; he can be scratched without worrying about derailing his development. That he had a bad game on Sunday doesn’t condemn him; he’ll be given plenty of rope.
But imagine a scenario where Aulie has a lousy preseason, rather than just one lousy game, a scenario in which he continues to look slow and make bad decisions with and without the puck. Further, imagine that Hunt plays well and establishes that he can help the power play whenever he’s dressed.
In that situation, which of the two players gets the job? Aulie has an edge in size, an advantage in NHL experience and a one-way deal, so it won’t be easy for Hunt to unseat him. It is, however, certainly within the realm of possibility.