Can the Leafs find their Chris Kunitz?

Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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
G A Pts Shots Corsi
CROSBY, SIDNEY 36 48 84 325 577
MALKIN, EVGENI 7 14 21 96 160
Kunitz With Teammate
TOI GF60 GA60 GF% CF60 CA60 CF%
CROSBY, SIDNEY 2560:10:00 3.4 2.09 62 64.71 51.91 55.5
MALKIN, EVGENI 753:36:00 3.03 1.91 61.3 62.42 54.62 53.3
Kunitz Without Teammate
TOI GF60 GA60 GF% CF60 CA60 CF%
CROSBY, SIDNEY 1571:32:00 2.14 1.95 52.3 57.73 54.79 51.3
MALKIN, EVGENI 3378:06:00 2.9 2.06 58.4 61.97 52.65 54.1
Teammate without Kunitz
TOI GF60 GA60 GF% CF60 CA60 CF%
CROSBY, SIDNEY 2092:50:00 2.72 2.44 52.8 62.13 55.36 52.9
MALKIN, EVGENI 2767:37:00 3.08 2.38 56.3 60.55 52.1 53.8

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.

The Favourites

Connor Brown

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.

Zach Hyman

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.

Second-tier candidates

Kerby Rychel

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.

Kasperi Kapanen

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.

  • mac

    “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.”

    Not sure that’s fair.

    Brown was the top scorer on his team 4 years in a row. All 3 of his years in the OHL, and his 1st year in the AHL when he was a league top-10 scorer as a 20-year-old. (He broke his foot or something last year and missed half the season, not that he would have outscored Arcobello or a healthy Nylander).

    Brown outscored McDavid both years they were on the same team, both in points and points-per-game. Apparently they only played together half the time (http://news.nationalpost.com/sports/nhl/toronto-maple-leafs-prospect-connor-brown-playing-beyond-expectations). McDavid missed 12 games for the World Juniors, but Brown didn’t lose pace.

    His performance this year is no surprise to me, anyway (I said he was a rookie who was going to surprise people, on reddit before the season started).

    • Skill2Envy

      I agree that Adam came to a bad conclusion on Brown. Quick snapshot of his numbers (GP/PTS): OHL 199/250, AHL 110/90, NHL 82/39. Coming into the season he had 6 points in 7 NHL games, Brown is no slouch. He also is a 200 foot player, playing both special teams.

      I predicted Brown would make this team, I just didn’t expect him, and the rest of this team to be playing this good this year.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Adam, you need to check your facts before making idiotic statements about Connor Brown. Since his rookie year, he has proven everyone who considered him “too small, too slow too red headed, too whatever” WRONG! I believe he will continue to develop into a key contributor bringing a Cup back to Toronto. Anyone who watched the Marlies while he played there knows he was both dominant in all three zones while leading by example.
    It is rare that I give Nonis credit for anything other than leading the Leafs down the toilet however he might be one of the best, if not the best player drafted in his time as GM.
    I for one am glad that Downtown Brown will be patrolling Kadri’s right wing on our shutdown line for years to come.

  • Stan Smith

    I realize that Adam is talking about the Leafs down the road in his search for a Kunitz comparison, but the Leafs already have someone. Tyler Bozak was never drafted, but has gone on to post an average of .63 points per game centering players such as Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel, JVR and now Marner. To compare Kunitz has posted an average of .66 points per game paying alongside Crosby and Malkin. Bozak has definitely been a great complimenting player all of his career, similar to Kunitz.