Could Brad Hunt Earn Himself a Regular Spot in the St. Louis Blues’ Lineup?

Dec 11, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; St Louis Blues defenseman Brad Hunt (77) shoots in the first period against the Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk (40) at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 11, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; St Louis Blues defenseman Brad Hunt (77) shoots in the first period against the Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk (40) at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /

Brad Hunt has arguably been the Blues’ best defenseman in two games since breaking into the lineup. Can he carve out a long-term role for himself on this team?

While the St. Louis Blues haven’t exactly had a star-studded forward corps at any point during their successful run under Ken Hitchcock, one thing that has generally remained a constant during this era has been the Blues’ deep collection of defensive talent. With three franchise cornerstones (at least according to the budget) on the blueline in Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk, plus two rising young talents in Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, the Blues pretty clearly have the greatest defensive talent in the Central Division, and that might even be the case for the entire Western Conference.

In a season where the Blues have waffled between using Carl Gunnarsson or Robert Bortuzzo as the sixth defenseman in the lineup, a new wrinkle has recently been thrown into the equation as both d-men deal with their respective second injuries of the year. Instead of recalling Petteri Lindbohm–who has generally been the club’s eighth defenseman in the event of injury over the past two seasons–the Blues recalled Brad Hunt earlier this week when Bortuzzo went on injured reserve with a lower-body injury.

Hunt, who was leading the American Hockey League with 29 points (nine goals and 20 assists) in 23 games at the time of his recall, has come up and continued his rapid point production since first entering the lineup on Friday. Within the first minute of his Blues career, Hunt picked up his first assist in a Blues uniform, dishing a beautiful pass to Robby Fabbri that set up the young winger’s seventh goal of the season at 1:50 in the first period.

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With Gunnarsson still out with a lower-body injury on Sunday at Minnesota, Hunt came back and played ferociously once again, nearly scoring against Devan Dubnyk–who’s arguably been the best goalie in the NHL this season–while also picking up the second assist on Vladimir Tarasenko‘s second period goal, the Blues’ only goal of the day.

Hunt, a 5-foot-9, 187-pounder who has had to fight tooth-and-nail for every opportunity and then pray for luck on top of that, is currently holding a spot in the Blues’ lineup only because Gunnarsson and Bortuzzo have been hurt. If he keeps up this type of production, might he earn a longer look?

The odds of that are low, since every defenseman that began the season with the team is making over $1M a year with the exception of Colton Parayko, who might be the club’s steadiest blueliner in front of his own net. Hunt, in contrast, is making $600,000 on a two-way deal, and his size indicates that he’ll probably wear down later in season; Hitchcock has often talked about diminutive defensemen like Hunt and Peter Harrold as guys that “would play every night” if not for their lack of size.

It might be interesting to see, though, whether Hunt could do enough to earn himself a spot on the NHL roster for the remainder of the season. While a rash of injuries could strike at any time, the Blues haven’t shown much of a need to carry 14 forwards on the roster thus far in 2016-17. Ty Rattie has played in just four of the team’s first 29 games, and he had to go down on a conditioning stint at AHL Chicago earlier this season to keep fresh.

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The Blues have carried eight blueliners on the NHL roster in the past, and while the work is generally infrequent for the eighth guy, it’s not as if opportunities have been at all plentiful for Rattie, either. Rattie would have to go through waivers to return to the minors, but at this point in the season other teams might be set in their ways enough that they wouldn’t want to claim the 23-year-old winger. After all, it’s not as if he’s been exceptionally productive this season; he has no points in four games and just had one assist in his three games with the Wolves.

Hunt might not provide quite as much stability in the defensive end as Gunnarsson does or as much rugged physicality as Bortuzzo does, but it’s already becoming quite clear that the 28-year-old has a gift for moving the puck that those two don’t really possess. In just two games, Hunt has already matched the point total that Gunnarsson has posted in 23 games and Bortuzzo has collected in 11.

Surely some of that is due to the fact that he’s simply playing out of his mind right now–for the Cardinals fans reading this, think Jeremy Hazelbaker in April–but he’s actually been a very strong puck mover throughout his AHL career, though the production hadn’t really translated to his NHL game through the first 21 contests of his career with the Edmonton Oilers.

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With the lack of rotation among the Blues’ forward corps this season, perhaps it’d make sense to at least start considering the possibility that Hunt could take over Rattie’s spot on the roster when Bortuzzo returns. There’s still six weeks or so until that happens, so plenty of things could take place–Hunt’s play could level off, other injuries could occur, perhaps even a trade could be made–but with the lack of offense that the Blues have experienced at times this year, it’d really be nice to have a consistently productive puck-moving defenseman. If Hunt can do that, he deserves a prolonged shot and a chance at being in the lineup every night.