BUFFALO – Right away last season, Sabres defenseman Matt Hunwick said he felt “something just didn’t click” in Pittsburgh.
“I … was just never kind of able to get my footing,” said Hunwick, who is practicing and listed as day-to-day after suffering a neck injury working out during the offseason.
Not surprisingly, Hunwick, who signed a three-year, $6.75 million contract with Pittsburgh, endured a rough campaign in 2017-18.
The Michigan product suffered a concussion six games into the season, costing him five weeks. He was also a healthy scratch for weeks at a time.
In the end, Hunwick played only 42 times.
That’s why a fresh start with the Sabres, who acquired Hunwick and winger Conor Sheary from the Penguins on June 27, excites the veteran.
But 29 games into his 12th season, Hunwick still hasn’t played for the Sabres, his sixth NHL team.
“It’s definitely been different,” Hunwick said of joining a new club and having to sit out. “I’ve played on a lot of teams in my career, but I’ve always had training camp and kind of gotten to jump right into things.”
Hunwick doesn’t have a timetable for his return. He started skating with the Sabres last week in Tampa Bay.
“I feel close,” Hunwick said following Thursday’s practice inside HarborCenter. “It’s only been two practices and a couple morning skates, but (I) feel good.”
Sabres coach Phil Housley said: “We’re going to try find a way to get him in at some point. But right now, he’s just trying to find his way through practices.”
Hunwick isn’t sure if the Sabres would send him to the Rochester Americans for a conditioning assignment.
After Hunwick was hurt, he said he met with doctors and modified his workouts and offseason skates.
Still, he said he wasn’t cleared for contact.
Then at the start of training camp – “I had some other symptoms that came about in the weeks leading up,” Hunwick said – he saw another specialist, who told him he couldn’t participate.
For a while this season, Hunwick would come in early for treatment or stay home, meaning he wasn’t around his new teammates very much.
“The last couple weeks of being back on the ice, going on the last road trip with the guys, was kind of a better introduction with everyone and kind of just getting back in that hockey routine,” Hunwick said.
Hunwick’s return should benefit the Sabres, who have three injured defensemen: Jake McCabe, Casey Nelson and Marco Scandella.
“Veteran experience,” Housley said of what Hunwick offers. “He’s played a lot of hockey. I think he’s somebody you can trust and he’s reliable. He skates really well. That’s what I like about his game, his mobility, his passing’s good.”
The 5-foot-11, 194-pound Hunwick has compiled 25 goals, 117 points and 203 penalty minutes in 521 NHL contests. He began his career with the Boston Bruins and has also played for the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Five years ago, after Patrick Roy took over as Colorado’s coach, he jettisoned Hunwick to the AHL, where he spent all but one game of the 2013-14 season.
“When Roy came in, he had a certain idea of what kind of players he wanted on the back end in Colorado,” Hunwick said. “I didn’t necessarily fit in at that point in his group of seven or eight. No hard feelings.”
Playing for the Lake Erie Monsters, of course, took some adjusting.
“Mentally, I think you feel like you’re an NHL player and that’s where you want to be,” Hunwick said. “I kind of just went down there with a good attitude.”
In 2014, Hunwick signed with the Rangers and got his career back on track. Now, he has an opportunity to do that again with the Sabres, who, like the Penguins, showcase a fast style.
“Going to Pitt, Hunwick said, “I thought it would be a really good fit, to be honest with you, just because of the tempo they play with, the speed.”