Chris Kunitz has never generated this much buzz in his hockey-playing career.
Kunitz didn’t play major junior, instead going to little-known Ferris State College, and he wasn’t drafted by an NHL club. He has also never played in an all-star game.
Yet as Team Canada deliberates its roster for the Sochi Olympics, the Pittsburgh Penguins left-winger is the most intriguing case for general manager Steve Yzerman and his staff. The Regina native isn’t widely considered an elite, Olympic-calibre player, but his chemistry with Sidney Crosby makes him a legitimate possibility.
“I think you look at that and you see that in the past teams have really looked at that and seen it as something that’s pretty beneficial in a short-term event like the Olympics,” Crosby said in an interview with The Canadian Press earlier this season. “He’s been playing great hockey. I think he definitely deserves a real hard look, and I’m sure that’s something they’ll decide.”
Through 42 games, Kunitz is tied for the fifth-most points of any Canadian-born player this season with 43. Skating alongside Crosby, who’s way ahead of the pack with his 59 points, certainly helps.
But where’s the balance between Kunitz producing because he’s Crosby’s linemate and the notion that Crosby has done so well in part because of his comfort level with Kunitz? That’s what Yzerman and the management team must ultimately decide before Tuesday’s roster deadline.
Kunitz said earlier this season that he hopes making Crosby “comfortable” on the ice is considered important.
“It’s easier when it’s only a seven-game tournament if you can go and have that chemistry right off the bat,” Kunitz said. “Obviously everybody’s unbelievably skilled and they can go out and make that chemistry and make those plays. But I think that once you can maybe read and react to where a guy is on the ice or have familiarity with where he’s going to be, it can just make maybe that split-second that can change something in a game.”
Crosby and Canada won gold in Vancouver in 2010 without Kunitz, as the Penguins captain scored the overtime winner against the United States on a pass from longtime Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
Crosby also had Eric Staal, Patrice Bergeron, Rick Nash, Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews as linemates in those Olympics, putting up seven points in seven games.
Yzerman, coach Mike Babcock and Team Canada tried cashing in on chemistry in 2010 by bringing the league’s top line at the time: Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley of the San Jose Sharks. That did not work out particularly well, though as Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland pointed out, “We won gold.”
But it also didn’t completely discount the value of natural chemistry during this process for Sochi. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks should be safe bets to make it and at least start the tournament on a line together.
The value of teammates is hard to quantify.
“We discuss teammates, but I think at the end of the day we’ve got to find players that we think are going to have the best chance to put the best team together,” said Holland, who’s on Canada’s management team. “Certainly we discuss it, but obviously we’re trying to find the 25 best players.”
Finding the best 14 forwards is an incredibly daunting challenge considering Canada’s depth, particularly down the middle. Something that could help Kunitz is a lack of natural left-wingers who figure to be in the final discussions.
Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks has 22 goals and 19 assists and can play all three forward positions. Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, who was not invited to Olympic orientation camp in Calgary, has had a stellar first half after moving to left wing alongside Tyler Seguin.
But Canada has centres who could play left wing at the Olympics, including Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche, Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes. In a pinch, Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings could play there, as well, if he’s on the team.
What none of those players have is years of experience playing with Crosby. Naturally some of the feedback Kunitz received from Olympic orientation camp had to do with his linemate.
“It was more, go out, have a good start to the season, try to keep with the pace of the numbers that I was putting up last year,” Kunitz said. “Have the chemistry with Sid to go out and play at a high level against the elite talent and guys that we get matched up against.”
According to advanced stats that track quality of competition, only a few players have faced tougher five-on-five matchups. That group includes Russian Pavel Datsyuk of the Red Wings along with Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks and Couture and Marleau of the Sharks.
Kunitz doesn’t have a reputation or a salary that compares with those players, and he has only played internationally once. He put up two goals and five assists in nine games at the 2008 world championships, and that performance on the larger ice surface could help his case.
More likely, it’s about what Kunitz has done lately. He was a point-a-game player last season, and his numbers this year make the 34-year-old impossible to dismiss.
“I know I have to focus on my job here in Pittsburgh and trying to do things right that maybe help you get on to a team like that,” Kunitz said. “I know that it comes down to how I play and when they’re going to pick a team that you want to make sure you have your best foot forward.”
It’s hard for Kunitz to do much more than he has. But a numbers game could keep him out, especially considering that injured Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos will be on the 25-man roster announced in Toronto on Tuesday.
Beyond Stamkos, who was considered a lock before breaking his right tibia in November, players like Benn, Couture, Sharp and even Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers make for some very difficult decisions.
Kunitz might’ve been a dark horse at one point, but just being at camp in Calgary over the summer sparked debate over his candidacy. That hasn’t slowed down as the Olympics have inched closer. Becoming such a hot topic is a new phenomenon for the product of the Yorkton Mallers and Melville Millionaires.
“I guess you enjoy it to some sense,” Kunitz said. “It’s something that you try not to think about, but it’s something that crosses your mind when you see it on TV or read reports.”
There’s no shortage of chatter about Kunitz, who has about as volatile a situation as anyone on the bubble for Team Canada. Either he’ll be penciled in as Crosby’s linemate or off the team entirely.
Crosby said it would be “pretty special” to represent Canada alongside Kunitz.
“He’s definitely in the mix,” Crosby said. “And hopefully it can work out.”