TAMPA — A new acquisition showed up for the Buffalo Sabres at Thursday's morning skate in Amalie Arena but the trade wasn't just announced. It actually happened in June.
Veteran defenseman Matt Hunwick was also a part of the deal that saw the Sabres acquire forward Conor Sheary from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a conditional 2019 fourth-round draft pick, but had yet to skate with his teammates due to a summer training injury.
After working out for the last month, Hunwick took the next step in his return-to-play progression by joining his new team on the ice for the first time.
"It's a little weird to kind of start the season in November, almost December now," Hunwick said prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. "I felt like I had a great summer and then to have an injury come up late in the summer … Especially being part of a new organization, you want to be able to come in and put your best foot forward and it's kind of been a slow process. I'm thankful to be back on the ice with the group."
Hunwick said he suffered the unspecified neck injury doing off-ice training and initially expected to be ready for training camp. Things took a turn for the worse and he said there was some initial "haziness" about whether he could play this season.
But several weeks of rest allowed him to heal and no surgery was needed. His return is now simply a matter of when and not if, although it's likely the Sabres will first send him to Rochester to get in a few games of rehab work.
"I think today with a morning skate was a first step. I'm not sure how long it's going to take," he said. "It's going to depend upon how my body responds and how quickly I pick up the pace of play. It's not easy jumping into the middle of the season, especially after taking so much time off. We'll see how acclimated I can get up to speed."
Hunwick, 33, has played 521 NHL games for five teams. He had four goals and six assists in 42 games last year for Pittsburgh, his only season with the Penguins. He has an annual cap hit of $2.25 million on a contract that runs through next season.
"I'm sure he's glad to get out of the house," said coach Phil Housley. "It's been a long time since he's been on a road trip. It's good to have him around the guys and make him feel part of the team."
Hunwick was a seventh-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan by Boston in 2004 and debuted with the Bruins during the 2007-08 season. His best year there was 2009-10, when he played 76 games in the regular season and all 13 in the playoffs that included a six-game win over the Sabres in the first round.
Hunwick's only other NHL season of more than 70 games was in 2016-17, when he played 72 for Toronto (1-18-19). He said he was excited to learn of the trade to Buffalo.
"I think I was looking for a fresh start and a new opportunity," he said. "I was part of a young team when I went to Toronto and you see how fast that has turned around. With the start we've had this year, I think it's been very similar so I'm real happy to be a Buffalo Sabre."
Hunwick skated with rookie Lawrence Pilut on an extra defense pair. Pilut is on the trip as insurance in case there's another injury on the blue line. Marco Scandella missed his second straight game with an undisclosed injury and the Sabres are thus using all six of their healthy defensemen.
Sheary also missed his second straight game with an upper-body injury.
Housley said both Sheary and Scandella remain day to day, although it would seem unlikely either would play Friday night at Florida because they did not practice with the team on Wednesday or take a morning skate Thursday. The Sabres will not have a pregame skate Friday, with the game against the Panthers on a back-to-back.
Thursday's game marked the 100th all-time matchup between Buffalo and Tampa Bay, and the Sabres entered the contest with a 55-36-8 advantage.
Thursday was also the 25th anniversary of Dominik Hasek's first shutout with the Sabres, a 3-0 win over Toronto in Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 29, 1993. The Hall of Famer stopped 24 shots for the first of his franchise-record 55 shutouts with Buffalo. He got offensive support on goals from Wayne Presley, Craig Simpson and Alexander Mogilny.