It didn’t take long for veteran winger Chris Kunitz to fall out of favour in Pittsburgh.
After coming over to the Penguins via trade during the 2008-09 season, and subsequently helping them win a Stanley Cup, Kunitz went on to forge some exceptional chemistry with captain Sidney Crosby. The result was three 20-goal seasons and one banner 35-goal campaign alongside Crosby – as well as a trip to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi on the gold medal-winning Canadian squad.
And then, after a Stanley Cup and four tremendously productive seasons, Kunitz’s offensive output dipped last season – and the Penguins faithful turned on him immediately. Despite repeatedly proving he could make an impact regardless of his age, the 35-year-old was put through the ringer with claims of him being washed up and on the decline.
The only issue is the fact that Kunitz’s production was still fairly solid. There was certainly a drop-off from his career-best 35-goal, 68-point season, but his 2014-15 offensive production (17 goals, 40 points) still ranked fourth-best among Penguins forwards, meaning Kunitz remained one of the club’s top secondary scorers. While the drop from 35 goals to 17 is surely problematic, it was also unrealistic to assume Kunitz would maintain his 30-goal pace, even with Crosby as his centreman.
His true level seems to have always been around the 20-goal mark, and Kunitz simply regressed closer to his average, while falling short due to unforeseen circumstances – a lingering foot injury and his team’s transition game becoming notably stagnant after their blue-line was decimated by injury.
Furthermore, Kunitz excelled in numerous areas outside of pure point production, proving his true worth to the club. Despite claims of being over the hill, Kunitz remained the most physical of any Penguins player, leading the team with 211 hits. Offensively, he reigned as the team’s best in terms of possession, finishing with the highest Corsi For percentage on the roster (57%). It wasn’t simply an anomaly brought on by playing with Crosby either – Kunitz’s career average Corsi For percentage is 55.8%, and he posted 57.7% during his time in Anaheim before he was paired with the Penguins phenom.
But by the time the offseason came around, some were wondering if Kunitz could be bought out by the Penguins after his one mediocre campaign. The Tribune-Review‘s Jason Mackey even asked GM Jim Rutherford about the prospect of buying out Kunitz, prompting this reply:
“I don’t think his play dropped off as much as his production. I just went through that with him. He can still contribute to his team.”
One season later, Kunitz seems to be proving the front office right as his consistent play is finally being rewarded.
After playing much of the season in the bottom six, Kunitz finally earned a shot back on the top line with Crosby on December 1st, when the Penguins took on the San Jose Sharks. The veteran recorded two assists in that game – neither came on plays wherein Crosby earned a point – while skating with the Penguins captain and fellow veteran Pascal Dupuis.
It was in the next contest that head coach Mike Johnston found the golden formula. Moving young winger Beau Bennett up to the top trio with Crosby and Kunitz, the Penguins saw their first line come to life against the Los Angeles Kings. Though the team couldn’t mount a comeback after stumbling early, the top line combined for six points. Crosby earned a goal and an assist, Bennett earned one assist, and Kunitz led the way with his finest game of the season, tallying two goals and an assist.
One game later, Kunitz set up the Penguins’ only goal, scored by returning defender Olli Maatta. The newly formed top line broke out again in the following game, the club’s recent victory over the Colorado Avalanche. Bennett tallied two goals in the affair, while Kunitz beautifully set up the game-tying goal early in the third period.
In the four games since being moved back to the top line, Kunitz has tallied seven points, 12 hits, three blocked shots, and has been a plus-six. In total, the Kunitz-Crosby-Bennett line has racked up 14 points in three games already.
But the true value of their emergence hasn’t simply been their notable production. Rather, it’s the fact that Pittsburgh’s offense has finally regained some much-needed balance. The Penguins had been riding the exceptional play of their second line – featuring Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and David Perron – while Crosby seemed lost at sea through the first quarter of the season.
The club now boasts two top lines that seem to be rolling along at a feverish pace, plus a bottom-six that includes bona fide scorers like Patric Hornqvist and Eric Fehr, reliable veterans in Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino, and even some promising youth in Daniel Sprong. It’s undoubtedly the deepest forward corps the club has housed in years, and surely sets the Penguins up for success through the final three quarters of the season.
But this balance was only achieved by moving Kunitz back up to Crosby’s wing, allowing the two longtime linemates to flourish together. Make no mistake, they’ve been exceptional. It hasn’t simply been a case of pucks bouncing in and bad-angle shots finding the twine. Kunitz, Crosby, and Bennett have found a dangerous synergy that has allowed them to implement a strong cycle game and refine their playmaking decisions, all of which has contributed to a consistent attack each time they’re on the ice.
While the veteran Kunitz may be in the final years of his career, the claim that he is too old to be a key contributor for the Penguins simply has no legs at this point. He’s proven his worth over his last half decade in Penguins colours, and he seems to be doing so once again.