- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Chris Kunitz, Olympian?
Before he was invited to Canada's Olympic camp during the summer, he was asked how many times he even thought he might be in the mix for Sochi.
"Never, really," the humble Kunitz told ESPN.com Saturday.
At 34, a self-described late bloomer, Kunitz figured that though he broke out offensively last season with 52 points (22-30) in 48 games, it was a "partial season" and people might still question what that meant.
But there he was in August at Calgary with the who's who of hockey's elite, and suddenly the reality began settling in that he had an honest-to-goodness shot to make the toughest team in the world to make.
In many ways, he's a unique case when it comes to Canada's Olympic hopefuls. He's very much on the bubble, a 50-50 shot, I'd say, to make it at this point, and yet if he does make it, he's on the top line with Sidney Crosby.
Team Canada's management members, all of whom are advisers under GM Steve Yzerman, have personally scouted Kunitz, perhaps more than any other player. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has taken in five of Kunitz's games so far this season, while Blues GM Doug Armstrong has seen him a few times. Oilers president Kevin Lowe has seen him at least once.
For Kunitz, he knows from the moment the puck dropped in October, it was a three-month audition for him, perhaps more than most players, to prove that he belongs in a tournament with the world's elite. It's weighing on him to some degree -- how can it not? But he tries not to let it drive him crazy.
"Pretty much," Kunitz said. "Just try to go out and play. They've got a tough job trying to pick the team. All I can control is how I go out and play, and how I try to build that chemistry with Sid and be able to go out ... playing against some of the best guys in the world every night. But I try not to think about it too much when you're out there. You have to play. Obviously, when things don't go well you second-guess yourself, [wonder] if you're hurting your chances. But you try not to let that creep into your day-to-day."
If Kunitz does make Team Canada, it would just be another remarkable chapter for a player who was undrafted and even waived twice in his first NHL season. We told you his story last March. For Team Canada management, the internal debate is intriguing: The coaching staff in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics had trouble finding linemates to jell with Sidney Crosby. Kunitz has meshed incredibly with the world's top player.
Do you take Kunitz for that instant chemistry?
"We've seen it before, I think, in past teams or with other countries, to have that advantage being there with a guy you're playing with," Crosby said Saturday. "I think whoever is deciding things definitely looks into that a lot, having a short-term event, having to adjust to systems and things like that, it does help to be familiar with guys. We saw that with Heatley, Marleau and Thornton [at the 2010 Games], and I think Getzlaf and Perry were playing together. I think you see that pretty often, and I don't think that's by fluke. I think that's something they look into a lot."
To Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, who sees the two work together every day, it's a no-brainer.
"If I were the coach of Canada, I'd feel very comfortable with Sidney Crosby as a centerman on my team, and if Sidney Crosby was a centerman on my team, I'd be looking for linemates for him, and Chris Kunitz is as good as it gets as far as fitting with Sidney," the Team USA head coach told ESPN.com Saturday. "I know Canada has a lot of good choices, but I know when you look at the 2010 team for Canada, they had a good fit with the San Jose line, with the Anaheim line. Going into a short tournament where you don't really practice together, chemistry is a big factor."
And now for the other perspective: That San Jose line was good early in the Olympics, but faded a bit as the tournament went on. Brent Seabrook made the 2010 team with the thinking that he'd have good chemistry with Chicago teammate Duncan Keith, but by the end of the tournament, Seabrook was no longer in the regular rotation.
So there's risk in believing NHL chemistry directly translates into Olympic chemistry. It's a different style of game on a bigger stage, and this time, on the larger international ice.
That's why Team Canada's ultimate decision on Kunitz is that if he makes the team, it's because management can live with the fact that he can play elsewhere in the lineup and not just with Crosby.
"To me there's nothing to think about: Nobody has ever meshed better with Sid," one veteran NHL scout told ESPN.com. "What else is there to talk about?"
What's unfair in some ways is to connect Kunitz with only Crosby. He's produced with other big-name linemates as well.
"Chris, at times, has been on maybe the best three lines in hockey," Bylsma said. "He's been on a line with Getzlaf and Perry [in Anaheim]; he's been on a line with Malkin and Neal; he's been on a line with Crosby and Dupuis. Those are three of the best lines in the game over the past six years or so.
"But," as Bylsma quipped, catching himself suddenly as he remembered his Team USA duties, "I don't want to talk him up too much."
Kunitz believes he's been able to mesh with all those players because he plays a simple game.
"I try to play in straight lines, play with speed, try to create turnovers and forecheck, go to the net hard," Kunitz said. "I'm not going to dance around too many guys. I'm not going to pretend to do that. I think that's the part of my game that maybe molds well with the high-skill-level guys. Maybe they can trust the consistency that I'll have to go to certain areas on the ice, willing to go to areas for them in order to be successful."
Combine his start this season with his production last year, and Kunitz is averaging just over a point per game (through Friday morning, 76 points in 74 games both seasons combined), so he's remained consistent.
"Having played with him and realizing all the little things he does well, how hard he drives the net, I think he's definitely a guy who has made a name for himself and gave himself a chance to get in the [Olympic] conversation," Crosby said. "He's a tough guy to play against. He plays the game hard. He's showed he's got a scoring touch."
On that memorable day in February 2010, when Crosby scored the Golden Goal, Kunitz remembers exactly where he was.
"We were having a birthday party for my wife with some of the [Penguins] teammates," said Kunitz. "It was a lot of fun to be with the guys when he scored that goal. We all sent him text messages saying, 'Thanks for doing it for us.'"
Who knows, could Kunitz share in another Crosby Olympic moment this time around? He has one more month to prove himself.
"Whatever the outcome, it's an honor to be part of the conversation," Kunitz said. "But definitely you want to be part of the team going to Sochi."
8dScott Burnside and Craig Custance