COLUMN: I Was Wrong About Chris Kunitz

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I don’t often admit when I’m wrong (because I’m usually right), but I’ll admit I was wrong about Chris Kunitz. For those of you that may follow me on twitter, when I live-tweet games, I usually have a Kunitz complaint or two in there. I am primarily an optimist, but I’m also a perfectionist and can easily pick apart someone’s game. I even do it to myself in my own hockey games. I could have a four-point night and get a win, but I’ll find ways to beat myself up over some missed opportunity. When Kunitz started to lose a step a couple of years ago, I immediately became way too hard on him.

I guess it’s my own fault. I tend to have high expectations of a lot of Penguin players, after all, we do have the best in the world and other plethora of talents, ripe for the plucking. I saw Kunitz play a huge role on the 2009 Cup team, and saw the year Kunitz had in 2011-2012 when he was primarily on a line with Geno and James Neal and watched that line dominate. Kunitz was by far the third-best scorer on that line, but it was other parts of his game that helped make that line so dangerous, and helped pave the way for Geno to score 50 goals and Neal to score 40. He also had enough speed to be an offensive threat on the fly with Geno, and then again with Sid after his return and Mike Johnston put Crosby between Kunitz and Dupuis. Kunitz has always been a physical guy, willing to play hard in the corners and in front of the net, but also was equipped with a good scoring touch. When his scoring numbers went down, a lot of people started to dump hard on Kunitz. They were being unreasonably hard on him. People have these expectations that if you play with Sid, you should be an elite scorer. Chris Kunitz never was that and never will be. That isn’t his MO.

I started to pull my support of Kunitz over the last couple years when I put together several factors. 1) His age was starting to show. He was losing a step that he had, and while he maintained his physical presence, it began to really become clear that his scoring touch had diminished, and that leads to my second point. 2) He was still playing on scoring lines with Sid or Geno. Now that’s more on the coach, but it was frustrating to see playmakers like Crosby and Malkin are set up guys for high quality scoring chances and not see them get buried in the net. This particular one leaves me baffled:

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I mean, wow. That’s the epitome of one too many passes. It’s become a joke on twitter now between Pens fans, but I still can’t believe that. That’s about as close as it comes to a sure goal.3) I thought for a player on the decline, paying him $3.85 million could have been used elsewhere to get some help of defense or bring in another guy with some kind of scoring touch, especially since the Penguins are always right up against the salary cap.

But these past couple of weeks have made me realize something. As I’ve watched more and more hockey played the game more and more myself, I’ve learned more about the game. I’ve learned that while the whole point of the game is to outscore the other team (which means you need scorers, defense, and good goaltending), it doesn’t mean there can’t be valuable players on your team that don’t light up the scoresheet. Guys who do the dirty work in the corners or get screens in front of the net, they don’t always get on the scoresheet, but what they did on a particular play is the main reason why a goal was scored.

Does Kunitz have the scoring touch he used to? No. On arguable the fastest team in the NHL, does Kunitz look the slowest he ever has? Yes. Does he go through stretches where he may drive you crazy? You betcha. So why have I changed my mind? Why do what so few men can do; admit I was wrong?

He’s by far the most physical forward the Penguins have. Hornqvist is up there too, and Horny has more of a scoring touch, but Kunitz lays the boom down all over the ice. He’s usually the top forward in hits. He plays hard in the corners. He does a lot of the things on the ice that go unnoticed. He’s a veteran guy, a really good leader to compliment great leadership in Crosby, he’s a great guy in the room who has the respect of his teammates and coaches, and he has a high hockey IQ. Listen, he plays an ugly game. You know what, for hockey, that’s perfectly fine. You need guys who play ugly games, especially on a team that’s filled with speed and skill guys. You don’t necessarily need an enforcer, but you need a couple guys that play hard and physical. The Penguins have that in Kunitz and Hornqvist. And man, their absence was very noticeable when they were injured.

For the people that still don’t like Kunitz, go back and watch the games while he was out. It’s not the same team that scored 8 goals against Ottawa. They needed his physicality, his leadership, and most of all, his experience. The team has a lot of young players. They need guys to go to that can teach them more and more about the game at the NHL level. Kunitz has won three Cups with two teams. Been there, done that.

I’m not saying to put him in the Hart trophy race, but he’s more valuable than people give him credit for. He’s not going to score 30 goals, and yeah, he’ll pass it one too many times again. But you know what you get when #14 steps out on the ice every night. Consistency is key to success. Yep, I was wrong about you, Chris. I won’t make that mistake again.

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