Penguins winger Chris Kunitz has crafted himself quite the formidable career, despite never really being the most talented player on his team or the most lauded. Now in his 14th season in the league, his career will forever be remembered as playing second fiddle to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Skinny on Kunitz
- Played in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League
- Broke into the league full-time in 2005-06 at age 26 with Anaheim as an undrafted free agent
- Traded from Anaheim Ducks with Eric Tangradi to Pittsburgh Penguins for Ryan Whitney
- 3 time Stanley Cup Champion (one in Anaheim, two in Pittsburgh)
- Olympic gold medallist (in Sochi)
Kunitz’s 4131 minutes at even strength over the past five seasons, with 2560 minutes played with Crosby and 753:36 minutes with Malkin, meaning over 75% of his time has been spent with two of the NHL’s elite centres.
|Kunitz’s stats with|
|Kunitz With Teammate|
|Kunitz Without Teammate|
|Teammate without Kunitz|
stats from stats.hockeyanalysis.com
Draw your own conclusions, but it’s pretty clear to see Kunitz’s offence jump up a noticeable amount when paired with #71 & #87.
Of course, this isn’t really a slight on him as Kunitz isn’t the only player on a successful team who’s been able to successfully exploit the talent of an elite linemate.
Some other notable players would be Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Cheechoo (and even more recently arguably Evgeny Kuznetsov). Heck, you could even argue the early years of Tyler Bozak’s career were shaped heavily by top-10 offensive talent Phil Kessel, the rare case of a winger dragging along a centre.
Scoring depth is obviously important, but it’s perhaps the true mark of a superstar of a player who can take an average teammate and make him look like a superstar. It’s no stretch to say Kunitz wouldn’t have managed quite the same NHL career had he not been playing alongside one of the NHL’s best.
Though Kunitz has been the player who’s most been stereotyped of filling the role as a passenger during his career, perhaps that’s not an awful thing at all.
With the Leafs likely to have an elite centre for years to common in Auston Matthews, much has been made of his linemates over the course of this season. Will Matthews find his 1-2 punch, his pseudo-Kunitz? Let’s take a look at the possible candidates.
Connor Brown’s junior career may in fact be one of the greatest “passenger” performances of all time. Despite actually leading junior hockey in points during the 2013-14 season, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was Connor McDavid driving the Erie Otters top line.
While Brown broke into the league a little younger than Kunitz, he’s put up a very similar rookie season. Currently, he’s put up 18 goals and 14 assists over 74 games.
Kunitz, meanwhile, put up 19 goals and 22 assists over 69 games in his official first full season.
The biggest drawback for Brown may in fact be Zach Hyman (or another player) pushing him off of the Leafs’ top line.
Another knock for Brown would be the fact he’s currently leading the team in shooting percentage at 14.3%.
All things considered, Brown’s a fairly decent bet to play with Matthews at least a respectable amount moving forward. Let’s give him a 7 out of 10 to pull out a Kunitz-like career in the Leafs’ top-six, save for perhaps the Gold Medal.
Though Hyman isn’t a UFA, he did also go the US college like Kunitz.
Like Brown, Hyman’s frequently also been played with Matthews, and often all three on the same line.
Together, the three of them have played 374 minutes together, the third most of any common Leafs line (topped only by JVR-Bozak-Marner and Hyman-Matthews-Nylander). However, Babcock recently has been pushing Nylander on Matthews’ line.
Hyman’s biggest problem may be that he’s unlikely to have the offensive talent to contribute at the level of a Chris Kunitz. He’s currently sixth on the team amongst forwards in shots on net, and with the 9 goals he’s scored this season hasn’t looked up to snuff as a top-six option. Shooting at 6 percent is a relatively low mark, but even if he were to double that rate next season, he’d barely hit the 20 goal mark. A few seasons of hitting 20 goals might be within reach, but it’s looking like a stretch for Hyman to regularly light the lamp 25-30 times a year like Kunitz has been able to.
However, it’s entirely possible (though unlikely) that Hyman has a whole new gear to be kicked in as a supplement to Matthews, as it is just year one for him as an NHL regular.
Though Rychel’s seen just a pinch of NHL action (and none with the Leafs in the regular season), the 2013 Columbus Blue Jackets first round pick has been tagged as a future contributor to the Toronto lineup. Leading the Marlies in points currently (though fifth in points per game), Rychel’s a top candidate to crack the Leafs within the next couple seasons. A player who put up 51 points in 31 games in his final junior season and 87 points in his draft year, when Rychel gets his chance it could be alongside #34.
The Finnish Flash (ok let’s not call him that) has been on a tear this season in the AHL, earning his first NHL game of the season tonight. Putting up 43 points over 43 games on the tale of 18 goals and 25 assists, Kapanen’s developed at a rapid rate since first coming to Toronto. The 20-year old part of the Phil Kessel deal has frequently been mentioned as one of the Leafs’ top prospects during his tenure in the organization, but has yet to been given the NHL opportunities to really prove himself.
The Dark Horses
The Leafs also have a few other forwards in their system yet to break through. Any one of Brendan Leipsic, Andreas Johnson or Seth Griffith or maybe… even Josh Leivo could find their day in the spotlight.
All in all, this was mostly a fun exercise and it’s incredibly to project what the Leafs lineup will look like tomorrow, let alone moving further into the future. But when the offseason comes around and the Leafs are looking for a piece or two to add to their top-six long-term alongside Matthews, perhaps he’s already on the roster.