Dryden Hunt #29 of the New York Rangers celebrates his...

Dryden Hunt #29 of the New York Rangers celebrates his first period goal against the Philadelphia Flyers with teammate Artemi Panarin #10 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

When the Rangers offered him a free-agent contract this past summer, Dryden Hunt didn’t think twice before accepting it. For an undrafted guy like Hunt, who had been up and down between the NHL and the minor leagues, a two-year, one-way deal worth an average of $762,500 per year was a no-brainer.

"For guys like me, free agency isn’t like this big ‘I can’t wait to get to free agency,’ ’’ said Hunt, 26. "I’m not a huge name, obviously, so you’re kind of going where teams show interest. And Rangers general manager] Chris Drury showed interest right away. My agent called me . . . and said, ‘New York’s interested and they’re willing to give you a one-way,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ ’’

Hunt didn’t wait for any other offers, taking the deal right away. It wasn’t until after he’d agreed to the deal that he bothered to look at the roster. That’s when he saw how much young talent the Rangers had coming to training camp, and he knew making the team was no sure thing.

But he didn’t sweat it. He’d been an underdog his entire hockey career, and he was used to it.

Hunt, a native of Nelson, British Columbia, 400 miles east of Vancouver, was never drafted into junior hockey. At 16 years old, he was looking at playing junior hockey in the BCHL, which would have preserved his eligibility for NCAA college hockey.

But with ice in his hometown scarce in the summer, his father, Jeff, took him all the way to Regina, Saskatchewan — 700 miles away — to skate at a camp with the Regina Pats of the WHL. As Hunt explained it, the idea was just to get some ice time to get ready for a BCHL team camp.

He ended up making the team.

"Each team in the Western League only has a couple of 16-year-olds,’’ he said. "And I went in and kind of, just like I did here [with the Rangers], I had a great first day and just kind of built and built and built and built. And then eventually they said, ‘Yeah, we want you on our team.’ ’’

At that point, the Hunts had a decision to make. Playing in the WHL would make him ineligible for U.S. college hockey, so if he stayed with Regina, he’d essentially be going all in to try to make it to the NHL.

The oldest of three kids (brother Sawyer, 24, played hockey and now is a student at the University of Victoria; sister Reece, 20, plays hockey for Bemidji State University in Minnesota), Hunt went for it.

Despite putting up good numbers (21 goals and 40 points in 62 regular-season games and four goals and an assist in four playoff games), he didn’t get drafted by the NHL in his first year of eligibility.

He thought for sure he would get drafted his second year after recording a combined 33 goals and 83 points for Regina and Medicine Hat and adding five goals and seven points in 10 playoff games for Medicine Hat. But he didn’t get drafted that year, either.

Finally, in his overage (20-year-old) season, he played for Moose Jaw and ended up on a line with Brayden Point, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Hunt had 58 goals and 116 points that season and was named WHL Player of the Year.

He was too old for the draft at that point, but he had a few teams interested in him. He chose to sign as a free agent with Florida, where current Rangers coach Gerard Gallant was coaching at the time.

Hunt spent four seasons in the Panthers’ organization, playing in the AHL the first year and splitting time between the NHL and AHL the last three, before moving to the Arizona Coyotes last season. He played 26 of 56 games and had three goals and eight points.

Hunt has played in all 26 games for the Rangers this season and has three goals and six points. He reunited with Gallant, who had only a vague recollection of him. He caught Gallant’s eye early on, though, drawing the coach’s praise for his effort in the Rangers’ preseason-opening 4-0 loss to the Islanders. That game alone didn’t get him on the team, but Hunt knew the importance of getting off to a good start.

"I think first impressions, especially as a new guy, are huge,’’ Hunt said. "Just get your name out there. You’ve just got to go out there and do something special to stand out. It was a great first game [against the Islanders], but I had four or five other games that I had to keep it going.

"I came to camp knowing that I had to earn my spot. That’s kind of what I did. I kind of had the same mentality back in juniors — I came in an underdog, not a huge name, and kind of just have to earn your stripes. And I’m still trying to do that after [26] games.’’

Getting a rest

With several players playing while under the weather in Friday's 2-1 win over Buffalo, the Rangers canceled practice Saturday. They will return to action Sunday night at Madison Square Garden against the Nashville Predators.


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