WINNIPEG – This time last year, Brad Hunt still was waiting to make his season debut with the Golden Knights, idling as an extra defenseman.
“You be a professional,” Hunt said. “You’re always there for your teammates no matter what. I think that’s what helped me be in this spot I am today.”
And the role he’s in now with the Wild is much different from his previous one in Vegas.
After parlaying a midseason trade into a fresh contract with the Wild, Hunt is holding down the right side of the third pairing as a mentor to not one but two up-and-coming defenders.
“I tell kids all the time, ‘Dream,’ ” Hunt said. “My dream is to be in this position, and I just never stopped believing in that. My family never stopped believing in it for me, and they were always behind me.”
When the Wild acquired Hunt and a 2019 sixth-round pick last January, a move that sent Vegas a 2019 conditional fifth-rounder, the team did so to secure an extra option for the back end.
But Hunt pounced on the opportunity to get back into a regular rhythm, emerging as a versatile rover who can man the point on the power play. In the offseason, he signed a two-year, $1.4 million deal after wanting to remain with the Wild.
“I felt so comfortable here, [like] I was already part of the family for a long time, and it’s just a special place,” said Hunt, who set up the Wild’s first goal of the season Oct. 3 in Nashville when his shot on the power play was deflected in by winger Jason Zucker. “Going to school at Bemidji [State], just my wife being from Minnesota, our son being born in Minnesota, Minnesota’s a special place to us. So it’s really cool to be part of the Wild.”
With Greg Pateryn on the mend from core muscle surgery, Hunt is the elder statesman on the Wild’s third duo.
Against the Jets, the 31-year-old worked with Carson Soucy for a second consecutive game while Nick Seeler was a healthy scratch, and Hunt is trying to pass on the knowledge he’s picked up during his own career.
“That’s something I can give back,” Hunt said.
Blue line makeover
While there were plenty of familiar faces on the home bench Thursday in Winnipeg, this isn’t the same Jets roster the Wild is used to going head-to-head with in recent years.
Gone are defensemen Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot.
Roseau native Dustin Byfuglien is also absent on a personal leave he’s believed to be using to ponder whether he wants to continue playing.
Add in an injury (Josh Morrissey) and birth of a child (Dmitry Kulikov), and Winnipeg dressed four defensemen who had 50 games of NHL experience or less Tuesday in Pittsburgh — a game the Jets won 4-1.
Rookie Ville Heinola, 18, had one of the goals.
Morrissey and Kulikov returned against the Wild.
“Anytime … you lose a few players, the rest of the team picks that up,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Look at last game. Who would have thought with their young defense that all of a sudden they’re going to go into Pittsburgh in the fourth game of a road trip and win there? And they did. They played together, and everybody picked up their game.”
After three consecutive road games, the Wild’s home opener will finally be Saturday against the Penguins. An extended pregame production will include introductions of the entire Wild roster.
Former North Star Mike Modano, who joined the Wild’s front office in May as an executive adviser, will lead the “Let’s Play Hockey!” call before puck drop. There will also be a march to carry the State of Hockey flag from Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub to Xcel Energy Center Gate 2 starting at 6:30 p.m. Because of inclement weather in the forecast, the team’s pregame party in Rice Park has been canceled.