This is the second in a multi-part series where I spotlight players we may not talk about as much, but whose contributions are absolutely essential to the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins. From penalty killing dynamos to fancy stats heroes this is where we talk about players not named Crosby, Malkin, or Kessel but make the engine of the Pittsburgh Penguins go.
In Pittsburgh no one had heard of him before last year, but if you travel to Germany and their rinks to ask their opinion, the name Kuhnhackl means more than Gretzky. Tom’s father, Erich Kuhnhackl, is a hockey legend across the pond. He skated in five Winter Olympics and famously never came to North America because he simply was making too much money in Europe. So naturally his youngest child, Tom who started skating at the tender age of five, should be a scoring threat, right?
You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And that’s a big part of why he’s on this list, though not the only one. Tom Kuhnhackl is the kind of player that is more likely to win a Selke than a scoring title and because of this, and the fact he typically plays a fourth-line role in Pittsburgh, he is often overlooked.
Kuhnhackl is an interesting story because early in his career he was a scoring threat. He was one of the better offensive players in the Ontario Hockey League where he was a point-per-game player over the course of three seasons with the Windsor Spitfires and the Niagara Ice Dogs. Then he turned pro with the Penguins’ organization and he was transformed. He wasn’t putting up impressive offensive numbers at the higher level then he missed a large chunk of time to injury. When he came back, the team worked with him and he changed his game. He went from a more offensive threat to a guy who focuses on the defensive zone.
Most notably, he spent time with the East Coast Hockey League’s Wheeling Nailers where they took his game down to the studs of his skills and rebuilt everything. He reinvented his entire game from soup to nuts and came out of it the big powerful 200 foot player he is today.
Remember late last regular season? When Kuhnhackl shook loose following a strong defensive play and found the net behind Holtby of the Capitals with a beautiful goal that ended with him celebrating like a turtle on its back? That’s the kind of player the Penguins want and need him to be. He’s the kind of player that isn’t always the fastest, or the flashiest, but he’s never going to be outworked.
It’s no surprise he calls Matt Cullen, a player known for making small but smart and important plays, Dad. Cullen, the nearly forty year old forward for the Penguins, has helped guide Kuhnhackl. That’s the kind of player Kuhnhackl is. He absorbs minutes without being a detriment. He helps keep possession going and sometimes, like with Eric Fehr’s first goal of the 2016-2017 season, he can turn the speed up a bit and get through. But he’s a big guy who kills penalties. There’s a reason Sullivan turned to him down the stretch and in the playoffs on one of the strongest penalty kills in the league. There’s a reason he was trusted in that role despite having very little NHL experience. Because he is smart.
Tom Kuhnhackl may never score as many goals as Bryan Rust or Conor Sheary. He may never skate a shift alongside Sidney Crosby. But he’s going to have a long NHL career and grow into the kind of player people say things like “you can’t win a Cup without him” about.