Matt Hunwick was just stepping off the KeyBank Center ice Friday morning when most of his Buffalo Sabres teammates had already taken off their equipment in preparation for a pregame meeting.
Hunwick, along with fellow defensemen Nathan Beaulieu and Casey Nelson, had just completed an exhaustive skate following a brief on-ice team session. After all, Hunwick and Beaulieu were set to be healthy scratches against the Chicago Blackhawks, while Nelson is still on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.
Hunwick, 33, has completed this same game-day routine many times over the past two seasons, however, it never gets easier.
"I don't think you ever really adjust to it," Hunwick countered afterward. "You do the best you can with the situation, prepare like you're playing every day. Try to keep a good attitude. There's not a whole lot else you can do."
Hunwick, who was acquired from Pittsburgh along with Conor Sheary in June, has been a healthy scratch in 15 of the past 16 games and has played only three times all season. A neck injury suffered during an off-ice, offseason workout prevented Hunwick from practicing with the Sabres until December.
Hunwick then played in back-to-back games Dec. 16-18 and did not play again until a 5-4 win in Columbus on Monday night.
He is one of eight healthy defensemen on the roster and sat again Friday in favor of Lawrence Pilut, a 23-year-old who can provide more offensively. Yet, Hunwick has proven his worth when called upon.
"I expect that from myself," Hunwick said. "That's what I've built my game around, being good in my own end. I have to be. I'm not going to be that offensive. That's what I bring to the table."
Though Hunwick had a minus-1 rating in 13 minutes, 30 seconds against the Blue Jackets, he played well without the puck. He knocked Blue Jackets winger Anthony Duclair off the puck during a one-on-one matchup in the Sabres' defensive zone and was able to clean up his teammates' mistakes throughout the night.
Hunwick, a left-handed defenseman, accomplished that despite playing on his right side.
"Sitting out that long and coming back to play on your off-side is not easy," left-handed defenseman Jake McCabe explained. "I experienced it a little bit with being injured and coming back on the right side. Everything is a little bit different and foreign on the right side because you get so many repetitions in your career on the left. He did a great job with it. It looked like he had been playing all season, really. ... It's the kind of player he is: steady and consistent."
Hunwick, who turns 34 in May, was in a similar situation last season, when he appeared in only 42 games with Pittsburgh despite being healthy. He never quite meshed with Penguins coach Mike Sullivan's system and was shipped to Buffalo to clear salary cap space.
The neck injury prevented Hunwick from moving ahead of his fellow defensemen, and his defensive-first play has not helped matters since the Sabres want more offensively from the blue line.
Housley had little depth on the back end last season with Zach Bogosian injured. Now, they will have nine healthy defensemen when Nelson returns. While Beaulieu is a restricted free agent at season's end, Hunwick is under contract through next season for $2.25 million annually, according to CapFriendly.com.
Hunwick has practiced on his off-side for the past six-plus weeks while waiting for Housley to call upon him for a game. The Sabres' defensive lapses have not been enough to earn Hunwick playing time.
Housley said following Friday's skate he plans to evaluate his defensive pairings following each game. Barring injury, Bogosian, McCabe, Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella appear to be assured a lineup spot. Pilut, Beaulieu and Hunwick will likely continue to rotate based on performance and result.
Hunwick, a seventh-round draft pick of Boston in 2004, is the most experienced and defensively sound of the three, having played in 524 career NHL games over 12 seasons. He had a plus-8 rating with 19 points in 72 games with Toronto in 2016-17.
"I've been practicing on my off-side for the past six weeks, so it's not like I went in completely cold," Hunwick said. "Games are certainly different, but it helps you stay ready. That's all you can do."
The Sabres are partnering with the Bald for Bucks initiative and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center this month to raise funds to support critical cancer research and patient-care programs.
Donors who contribute $50 or more will receive a limited edition t-shirt and have the chance to win autographed merchandise, tickets to future Sabres games and meet-and-greet opportunities.
Sabres studio analyst Martin Biron will shave his head live on the television broadcast prior to a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 1. Donations can be made online at Sabres.com/BaldForBucks or at KeyBank Center during the team's home games on Feb. 9, 15 and 23.