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Penguins Kunitz Thrives in New Role – Pittsburgh Penguins – PenguinPoop Blog

Penguins Kunitz Thrives in New Role

Back in mid-January, I suggested in one of my follow-up comments that the Penguins consider moving Chris Kunitz at the upcoming trade deadline.

To digress for a moment, I’ve been a huge Kunitz fan ever since he arrived from Anaheim in a trade for Ryan Whitney back in February 2009. They simply don’t come any tougher or grittier. Or classier, for that matter.

Night after night, he’s squeezed every ounce of effort from his compact frame. Almost always in physical fashion. I’ve long lamented that if he weighed 210 pounds instead of a buck-ninety soaking wet, there’d be no stopping him.

Yet Kunitz has been plenty good. A First Team NHL All-Star in 2013, he’s topped the 20-goal plateau six times—including a career-best 35 in 2013-14—while serving as a valued performer for three Stanley Cup champions.

Not too shabby for an undrafted free agent from Ferris State.

Back to my original train of thought. After watching Kunitz endure an uncharacteristically moribund stretch in early December (no points, minus-1 in six games), I felt he was no longer capable of filling a top-six role. The Saskatchewan native seemed a step slow, for one. Even his legendary compete level appeared to be down a notch.

Understandable for a 37 year old with a lot of hard miles on his hockey odometer.

I’d begun to think that it would be a good idea for the Pens to shed Kunitz and his considerable cap hit of $3.85 million. After all, with kids like Jake Guentzel, Tom Kuhnhackl and Oskar Sundqvist waiting in the wings, the Pens aren’t exactly hurting for capable replacements.

Although “Kuni” perked up around the holidays, he still struggled to mesh with linemates Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist. He became a vagabond of sorts, bouncing between lines.

Then Matt Cullen went down with a foot injury during the wild 8-7 victory over Washington on January 16. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan didn’t hesitate, moving Kunitz to the restructured fourth line alongside Eric Fehr and Scott Wilson.

The trio clicked. Number 14 was a big reason why.

Reflecting his selfless nature, Kunitz embraced his new role—which included a turn on the penalty kill—with gusto. Workload pared to around 13 minutes a game, the old battler quickly rediscovered his kamikaze roots.

During a 4-1 triumph over Montreal he dished out four hits. Ten in a pair of contests against the ultra-heavy St. Louis Blues. At his abrasive and inspirational best, he delivered a game-high seven hits during a recent victory against Metro Division rival Columbus. Last night he ran rugged former teammate Deryk Engelland into the wall on at least two occasions.

Classic Kunitz. No matter the size or reputation of his foe, he finishes his checks. Hard.

He’s finding the net, too. While no longer the net-front nuisance he once was, the Saskatchewan native’s tickled the twine three times in his past nine games, including a third-period tally against Calgary to ignite a Pens comeback. All told, he’s amassed seven points over that span. Output that’s earned him a second look in an elevated role in the wake of injuries to Malkin, Conor Sheary and now Carl Hagelin.

In the final season of a three-year contract, Chris faces an uncertain future. Given the stockpile of young forwards in the organization and pending salary-cap challenges, it’s difficult to envision Pens GM Jim Rutherford signing him to a new pact. Even at a bargain rate.

Then again, warriors like Kunitz don’t grow on trees.

Ice Chips

The Penguins lost to Calgary last night, 3-2, in a game that ended with a shootout. Kunitz and Guentzel scored third-period goals for the black and gold. Goalie Matt Murray stopped 28 of 30 shots through regulation and overtime, but yielded the shootout winner to veteran Flames forward Kris Versteeg.

Kris Letang had a chance to pull the Pens even in the shootout, but his forehand attempt hit the right goal post.

Sidney Crosby assisted on Kunitz’ goal, leaving him two points shy of 1000 for his career.

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4 Comments

  1. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    February 8, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Hi Rick,
    You raise several good points about Chris K. I think the key to his long career in the NHL is his competitive spirit. He never takes a night off. He is always proving himself….That he belongs in the NHL.
    I remember in 2014,the Gold Medal game in Sochi against a very powerful team Sweden,Canada won 3 to 0. Toews, Crosby and Chris K. scored to win the biggest Hockey game on the planet ! A lot of Canadians thought before the tournament started the only reason Chris was on the team was Crosby wanted him. Afterwards, all were signing his praises as he played an important defensive role and he played with many other players beside Crosby. He again proved that he belonged on the 2014 Men’s Olympic team from Canada.( top 25 Hockey players from our Country ) !!
    In short he made the best of the talent the good Lord gave him.
    So maybe he is trying to play for a contract next year in the NHL, and thus his recent upsurge in scoring, or more probably he is just being Chris Kunitz and playing the game the only way he knows how. Personally, I hopes he retires this year and joins the Pen’s front office before his skills start to diminish and he goes out on top.A class act.
    Cheers

    PS: When I went back to check the web about the 2014 Men’s Olympic Hockey series, the top goal scorer for the entire Olympics, ( and Olympic All star Team member…..Phil the thrill Kessel ). Small world indeed.

    • the Other Rick's Gravatar the Other Rick
      February 8, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Hey Jim,

      I don’t know Kunitz personally but I would have to agree. Kunitz plays like he wants to win every shift, every game, every series, and every Cup. He leaves it all out there on the ice. Like you, I concede that there is a small probability that he is just playing for a contract next year, but that probability is infinitely small. Almost certainly he is just being Kunitz and trying to win every time his skates touch the ice.

      When his time does come to take off the Pens jersey he will certainly leave a huge whole in the team when it comes to that grit level. Who knows what will happen in the off season. It may be too much of a distraction for the players to consider. We fans on the other hand love to project.

      Even if the Pens do have to move forward next season wihout No 14, he will be missed. He exemplifies what I love about the game. Fortunately Hornqvist plays the same way. Wish we had 8 or 9 more like those two.

      But then again, who knows, maybe some of these kids will learn from them (Rust, Wilson, Kuhnhackl, etc)

    • Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
      February 8, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Hey guys,

      Great comments, as always. Jim … an interesting look back at the 2014 Olympics.

      I’m just really impressed with the way Kunitz is playing and, perhaps more to the point, his effort. Not that I would have expected any less…he’s always given his all, game in and game out.

      Still, I was struck by the way he embraced a fourth line role. Let’s face it, a lot of 37-year-old former All-Stars might have pouted or squawked about being “repurposed” in such a way.

      Not Kunitz. He’s played with the drive and intensity of a kid fresh from the minors who’s trying to make an impression, rather than a former star in the twilight of a long and distinguished career.

      Given his grit, leadership and willingness to fill a bottom-six role, I might seriously consider signing him to a 1-year deal at a bargain rate a la Matt Cullen.

      Rick

      PS–Jim, agree that I’d love to see him stay with the organization after he retires. Other Rick, I hope Kuni’s attitude and work ethic rub off on the kids, too. What an example he sets.

    • Jayelene's Gravatar Jayelene
      February 8, 2017 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      Hi guys,
      I really have nothing significant to add, other than to say that I agree with you all about Chris. His hustle and drive should serve as a great example for the younger players on the team (and maybe a couple of the older ones, too). The Chris Kunitz we’ve seen in recent games is the player I remember, which makes me wonder if he might have been nursing a minor injury early in the season that kept him from performing at the top of his game. At his age, it’s always easy to shrug and say, well, it’s gone now, but thanks for the memories. Maybe he’s got a few more of those in store for us. 😉
      Go Penguins!
      Jayelene


            

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