Kunitz Is Adapting His Game To Extend His Career
Chris Kunitz is a smart man. He’s well-spoken, college-educated, and hockey-savvy. So it should come as no surprise that Kunitz was prepared to find a 9-5 job when he graduated from Ferris State in 2003 after going undrafted into the NHL.
If it wasn’t for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim offering him a professional contract on April 1 of that year, we might not have the pleasure of watching him join with Sidney Crosby to create the most dominant one-two punch in the NHL.
But it wasn’t easy for Kunitz to get to where he is today, as one might assume. He spent much of his first professional season traveling from Cincinnati of the AHL to Anaheim of the NHL, then spent his entire lockout canceled season in the AHL.
When hockey resumed a year later, Kunitz was placed on waivers and claimed by the Atlanta Thrashers, only to be waived again just two weeks later. The Mighty Ducks once again took a chance, and this time he wouldn’t let them down.
In 67 games, he totaled 41 points, surpassing Paul Kariya’s team record 39-point rookie season of 1994-95.
One year later, he tallied 60 points and was an integral part of the Mighty Ducks’ run to the first Stanley Cup Championship in team in history. That proved to be his best statistical season until last year, when he notched 61 points.
But Kunitz never was known for his offensive prowess. Instead, he earned his points through hard work, big hits, and constant forechecking. In other words, he was the third wheel on a scoring line whose job was to create space for his skilled linemates.
Such a job takes a toll on the body, especially when the player stands 6’0 and weighs under 200 pounds and constantly is hitting defensemen who are considerably bigger than he is.
After being traded to the Penguins on February 26, 2009, Kunitz began having injury issues, playing in just 50 and 66 games in his first two seasons with the club.
His physical play was beginning to catch up with him.
So, in 2011-12, with Crosby sidelined, Kunitz began a transformation in his game, focusing more on offense and less on steamrolling his opponents. The result was the best offensive season of his career — 26 goals and 35 assists.
Things couldn’t have been going any better for the player who had to fight the odds time and again to reach such success.
And then another lockout happened. For an “older” player, any work stoppage is bad news, but for Kunitz, it was terrible. Just as he created some momentum for himself he was forced to take a break.
But, as he had done his entire career, Kunitz worked hard, training with teammates in Pittsburgh so he would be ready when a deal was reached.
And ready he was.
Kunitz has been nothing short of spectacular in this lockout-shortened season. As of Sunday morning, Kunitz was second in league scoring with 39 points in 29 games and tops in plus-minus, sitting at +23 — setting himself up for the best statistical year of his career, despite a lockout-shortened season.
It’s been a bumpy ride for Kunitz, who wasn’t even supposed to have an NHL career. But what we’re seeing is the transformation of a grinding scoring line extra to a talented scoring line staple.
What’s more impressive is that we’re seeing this at such an old age in hockey terms. At an age when most are beginning to decline, Kunitz is molding his game to extend his career.
It’s a smart move by a smart guy.
At age 33, many consider Kunitz to be only a short-term option on Crosby’s wing. But if Kunitz has proven anything in his career, it’s that he never should be counted out.