Late bloomer: Dryden Hunt’s dream season

The Nelson native is dominating the WHL and has agreed to an entry-level contract with the Florida Panthers.

There’s no easy way to explain the hockey enigma that is Dryden Hunt.

The Nelson native, who went undrafted by both WHL and NHL teams, is the top goal scorer in Canadian junior hockey. Hunt’s 50 goals for the Moose Jaw Warriors are four more than the nearest CHL competition, and his 102 points are second in the WHL behind only Regina’s Adam Brooks.

The season isn’t even over and the 20-year-old has already topped his previous best goals total by 17.

“I guess you could say I was a little bit of a late bloomer,” he says.

No kidding. Hunt’s surprise ascension to junior hockey elite has earned him an entry-level contract with the Florida Panthers, which he agreed to last week. That deal was hardly in the cards prior to this season, and after years of hard work Hunt was just hoping someone would eventually take notice.

“I’ve always slipped in through the back door. I’ve just tried to progress every year and get better,” he says. “In my fifth year now with what I’ve been doing I think it’s all come full circle. It’s definitely nice.”

Hunt’s star took its time to rise.

The six-foot, 201-pound forward played his minor hockey in Nelson. He left for a year of bantam in Saskatchewan, and returned to play for the major midget Kootenay Ice in 2010-11 when he made a four-game appearance in Junior A with the Trail Smoke Eaters.

Hunt signed with the Regina Pats for the 2011-12 season but struggled as a rookie, posting just five goals and five assists. His next year was a disaster, with two concussions knocking him out for all but two games. He hasn’t suffered a concussion since.

Hunt returned next season and showed signs of improvement, finishing with 21 goals and 19 assists and received an invite to the Carolina Hurricanes’ training camp, but went overlooked. His numbers were even better in 2014-15: 33 goals and 50 assists split between Regina and Medicine Hat, with seven more points in 10 playoff games for the Tigers.

Still another training camp invite, this time from the Montreal Canadiens. Still the phone remained silent.

Hunt was acquired by the Warriors in the off-season. At the time, Moose Jaw head coach and former NHL player Tim Hunter knew he was getting a goal scorer. He didn’t realize he was getting a star.

When he arrived, Hunt was asked if he’d mind moving from left wing to right. Hunt shoots left-handed but agreed to the move. Hunter isn’t sure the change is what led to Hunt’s breakout, but thinks the experience has been a benefit.

“The one thing he’s really good at is taking pucks on his backhand going up the wing or taking them off his skates and kicking it up to his stick,” says Hunter. “He’s really good at that and that’s where a lot of players struggle, taking pucks at full speed on the backhand. It’s difficult to do and he’s done a terrific job at that.”

What sets Hunt apart is his shot. It’s a part of his game he’s spent years perfecting.

Hunt credited Mario DiBella with some early advice when he played for the current Nelson Leafs head coach in minor hockey. Every day, DiBella told him, go out and shoot the puck. So Hunt set up a net in his backyard and practised constantly for years.

The hard work is finally paying off. Hunt has an unbelievable six hat tricks this season, five of them in February. He was named January’s player of the month and earned another player of the week honour in February. He says its been surreal seeing his name on the WHL top scorers list.

“There are some great players that are in that top five and I think we are all going to battle it out to the end,” says Hunt. “It’s a fun race to be a part of but most importantly our team is winning right now. It’s nice to wake up every day and our team is winning and you are helping that cause.”

Hunter pointed out Hunt’s ability to conceal his shot from goaltenders.

“Dryden does a real good job of that,” says Hunter. “He can shoot it quick. He can pull it in and disguise the release. But the one thing he does really well is he shoots it hard, whether it’s going to be quick or he is pulling it in to change the angle on the shot. He’s got an NHL shot for sure. Not many guys in the NHL shoot it as hard as he does, actually.”

It’s difficult, Hunter says, not to play Hunt every other shift. It’s also inexplicable to him that his star was never drafted, although Hunter suspects the season lost to concussions had something to do with it.

“Guys get lost in [all the rankings] and they get forgotten about … everyone matures at a different time,” says Hunter. “It’s not really where you are at at 17, it’s where you are at at 23. I think he’s going to be in a pretty good situation to be a pretty good player at 23.”

That explanation seems the most plausible for Hunt’s rise — he just needed time.

After this season, Hunt will get a shot at making the Panthers out of training camp, although a more likely scenario is a professional debut with Florida’s AHL affiliate Portland Pirates.

NHL dreams come easy during a season like Hunt is having.

“You could say it’s all kind of coming together,” he says. “I’ve worked hard the last five years to get to this point. Everybody’s goal is to get to the next level and I’ve just been trying to work hard every year to get there. It’s nice to get some recognition in my final year.”

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