Many, many articles will be written about the greatness of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin over the next few weeks and deservedly so. But not as much ink, both on paper and electronically, will be spilled over what may have been Chris Kunitz’s final game as a Penguin. Winning three Stanley Cups, as Crosby & Malkin have done, is impressive. But remember that Kunitz also won one with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Having four Stanley Cup rings starts to put you in rarefied air.
Kunitz was obtained in a trade deadline deal in 2009 from the Ducks for Ryan Whitney, who humorously put out this tweet after Kunitz scored the game-winning goal in double overtime of Game 7 against the Senators:
Kunitz !! How did the penguins get that guy!??
— Ryan Whitney (@ryanwhitney6) May 26, 2017
Kunitz provided a physical presence on Crosby’s line right away. He was able to up his offensive game to keep up with Sid, as evidenced by this sequence in the Cup final against the Red Wings in 2009. During last year’s Cup winning run, Chris Kunitz saw his average ice time fall into the 14 minute range, down from 18 minutes just the previous year. It’s been evident for the past year that he’s slowing down. Part of me was surprised that Kunitz and his $3.8M salary were still here this year; I thought some team looking to reach the cap floor and get a veteran presence would trade for him.
Chris Kunitz has been a Pittsburgh Penguin for 8+ seasons. In his 569 regular season games as a Penguin, he’s scored 169 goals, good for 9th all-time for the Penguins, and mostly of the dirty, rough variety in front of the net. He also has 219 assists, giving his 388 regular season points as a Penguin. He’s also dished out 1,452 hits in his tenure here. Not at this moment, but if you’re curious, run as hard as you can them slam into a wall. That’s essentially what Kunitz has down 1,452 times and just as a Penguin, not counting all his other hits (which weren’t tracked prior to 2007) in his 5 years with Anaheim. And then think about the probably equivalent number of times he’s been the recipient of a hit…or cross check…or slash in front of the net.
Kunitz can still lay the wood as evidenced by Game 5 against the Predators. He checked Mattias Ekholm so hard on a forecheck that Ekholm’s ancestors temporarily reconsidered procreating just to potentially avoid any conflicts in the future for him.
Kunitz is going to be 38 by the time the puck drops on Opening Night. Kunitz is no longer a top-six forward in the NHL, especially for the Penguins with all their young talent percolating up to the team in recent years. The wings on the top 2 lines will be some combination of Guentzel, Sheary, Rust, and Kessel. The Pens have bottom-six young guys like Wilson, Kuhnhackl, Sundqvist and older guys like Hagelin and Hornqvist. Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese are going to require a look at some point, too. It’s just a numbers game for Kunitz at this point on the Penguins.
Could Kunitz go somewhere else and be a solid, veteran presence in the bottom-six for a young team? Sure he could. But he’s got his money, he’s got his 4 Stanley Cup rings. Not bad for an undrafted player. He’s taken more physical abuse than any of us could fathom. There’s a greater than even chance that Kunitz retires quietly in the summer. If he does, he won’t be an all-time great Penguin in the same mold as Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby, Malkin, Francis, and Fleury. But he will be an all-time important Penguin with what he brought on the ice for his 8+ year tenure.