When the Islanders announced the hiring of Steve Stirling as their new head coach over the summer, Trent Hunter was at the announcement. When Stirling made his National Hockey League debut behind the bench against Washington this fall, Hunter was on the roster.
Stirling and Hunter spent some time together in Bridgeport, and now both are growing into the NHL together.
“Playing for Steve (Stirling) the past two seasons, I think I knew his tendencies and he knew what I could do,” Hunter said.
Hunter scored 60 goals in two years, thirty each season with the Sound Tigers, but he has more to offer Coach Stirling than scoring. His former Bridgeport coach knows where his strengths lie already.
“I had him for a couple years now, I used him in the American League killing penalties and late in the game against a top line. He was on a top line and I used him head to head against their top line.”
Hunter had something to prove heading to training camp this season. He started a season ago with the Islanders, but ended the year in Bridgeport.
“I had to come in at the start of the year and prove that I deserve to be here, and that I was good enough to play.”
Hunter later quickly showed he could play in the NHL, starting with the 2002 Stanley Quarterfinals against Toronto with a goal in the series. Stirling had confidence in Hunter when he came up in the playoffs.
“Mike (Milbury) asked, ‘Is he going to be alright?’ Of course, he’s going to be alright because he doesn’t panic,” said Stirling. Hunter played four games and picked up two points in seven game series.
The following season, former bench boss, Peter Laviolette, used Hunter sparingly in eight games. He picked up four assists in three trips to Long Island, but back with the Sound Tigers, Hunter had a second thirty-goal season. Hunter was determined to make a spot on the roster and spent the summer preparing.
“I’m trying to work hard in the summers and be in the best shape and trying to maintain it,” the twenty-three-year-old said.
The Red Deer, Alberta native joined the Islanders this season from the start, but his impact on defense draws more praise from his coach.
“He’s got a good head for the game and hands and the defensive part that I thought he can do,” said Stirling. “More importantly, he’s getting a chance and some ice time.”
Stirling will be shuffling his lines until December, due to centerman Dave Scatchard dislocating his shoulder, which gives Hunter a chance to play. Stirling penciled in Hunter’s name four times on the lineup card since the injury. Hunter has made the most of his shifts, getting four points (three goals, and one assist) in those contests. It has also eased Hunter’s transition to the faster-paced NHL.
“I’m starting to feel more and more comfortable with every shift and I’ve got to keep building and working on my game,” Hunter said.
“Very much I like the way he’s staying in position and being patient,” Stirling said.
Patience is the way Hunter scored his first career regular season goal against the Penguins a week ago.
“The goal against Pittsburgh was a classic example of the guy sitting back and letting his first guy do all the work and sit back — wait, wait, and wait — to get rewarded,” said Stirling.
“Everyone takes pride in their defense. When the puck goes in the net at the other end it feels good, too,” Hunter adds. Hunter’s had at least a shift on the penalty kill in the last three games.
Aside from the Isles bench boss, Hunter’s effort doesn’t go unnoticed by his teammates. Hunter played on two different lines shifting between third and fourth line duties in the last three outings. The first was a scoring combination with Jason Wiemer and Justin Papineau. Most recently on Saturday, Hunter joined forecheckers Jason Blake and Shawn Bates. He earned a second star of the game against Anaheim with a goal and an assist.
“Hunter is one of the best forwards I’ve ever played with or seen down low. It’s hard to take the puck off him,” Blake said.
After a game starting together, Blake likes the chemistry the line has. “Both Bates and Hunter work really good and hard in the corners and they give an honest effort every shift,” said Blake. “It’s a good mix almost like last year with Scatch (Scatchard) and Wemes (Wiemer). Nothing fancy, it’s just a hard working line.”
The line could have the potential of becoming consistent second scoring line like the Blake, Wiemer and Scatchard line that racked up 128 points a year ago.
Despite the early struggles Hunter encountered, Stirling knows the winger is starting to work though it.
“He’s pretty mature, level-headed and doesn’t get flustered. You’re seeing some of that out there in the last couple of games.”