Kunitz's success shouldn't surprise
Undrafted and waived twice in the same month of his first full NHL season, Chris Kunitz never would have envisioned that one day he would be sitting third overall in scoring in the top league in the world.
But the story of Chris Kunitz is one that young minor hockey players should embrace.
He stuck with it. And he believed in himself.
"Definitely a late bloomer," the two-time Stanley Cup winner told ESPN.com Wednesday. "I didn't even think myself that the NHL was something that could be realistic until I signed out of college. I played Tier 2 junior, nobody very often gets drafted out of the SJHL."
And yet from the Melville Millionaires of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League to four years at Ferris State University in Michigan (where he scored 63 goals in 77 games his last two regular seasons), the NHL finally did call.
Enter David McNab. The longtime Anaheim Ducks executive -- who was assistant GM at the time -- deserves the credit for spotting Kunitz and seeing something in him that many other NHL teams did not.
"Definitely, I talked to him quite a bit starting near the end of my junior year and then throughout my senior year," Kunitz said. "I sat down and had talks with him and he told me they were interested in me and certainly he was definitely an integral part."
I think it's not a surprise. ... I think he's doing a lot of the same things and it's just nice he's getting results and getting recognized. Because he does a lot of things out there that leads to success.” -- Sidney Crosby on Chris Kunitz
McNab, who worked under GM Bryan Murray at the time, signed Kunitz to his first pro contract on April 1, 2003. It was no April Fool's joke.
Kunitz spent most of the next two seasons with AHL Cincinnati where, as fate would have it, his future home in Pittsburgh was likely born. First, current Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was an assistant coach on that Cincinnati team in 2004-05 and watched firsthand as Kunitz collected 22 goals and 39 points in 54 games that season, plus eight points (1 goal-7 assists) in 12 playoff games. It's also during this time that Chuck Fletcher, who was the director of hockey operations in Anaheim, kept close tabs on what was going on with the Ducks' farm club. Meanwhile, Ray Shero, then the assistant GM in Nashville, was overseeing the AHL's Milwaukee team, which played Cincinnati a lot, including the playoffs.
In the spring of 2006, Shero was named GM in Pittsburgh and brought along Fletcher from the Ducks to be his assistant GM. Bylsma joined the Penguins organization the same year as an assistant coach in AHL Wilkes-Barre.
So when the Penguins traded for Kunitz in February 2009, it's not hard to see why they felt comfortable with the player they were acquiring.
"I guess we had it covered and knew the player well," Shero told ESPN.com.
Kunitz's first full NHL season in 2005-06 had a bizarre start though. The Ducks waived him in early October, and Atlanta claimed him but played him only twice before putting him back on waivers three weeks later, at which point Anaheim re-claimed him.
"The Ducks had gone through new ownership, a new GM, a new coach, David McNab was still there but I was among the first cuts out of camp and that was disappointing," Kunitz said. "But they obviously still wanted me since they re-claimed me."
He would go on to pot 19 goals and 41 points in 67 games with Anaheim that season, the Ducks dodging a major bullet in their ability to re-claim the Regina native on waivers.
Kunitz brought the Cup back to Regina in the summer of 2007 and life could not have been any better.
Just a year and a half later, he was sent to along with Eric Tangradi to Pittsburgh in a deal that netted the Ducks Ryan Whitney. And like any player traded for the first time, it hit him like a jack-hammer.
"It was a tough situation," Kunitz said. "I had just signed a four-year extension the summer before. And then the next February I get traded. You don't really realize the business side of the game until you first get traded. It was tough, a lot of time talking to my wife and figuring things out."
The Ducks were in Boston the day he was dealt, McNab delivering the news to him personally. Kunitz remembers former superstar blueliner Scott Niedermayer being there on his way out that day.
"Scott Niedermayer told me then, 'Good luck, it'll be a great move for your career.' That was great wisdom from him, which helped make it easier," Kunitz said. "I ended up winning the Cup later that year."
Kunitz put up 14 points (1 goal-13) assists in 24 playoff games for the Penguins.
He followed that up with a 23-goal, 48-point season in 2010-11, and last season he had career-highs of 26 goals and 61 points.
So he's certainly been tracking upwards. This is why, while most outside observers are stunned at his incredible production this season -- 37 points (18 goals-19 assists) in 27 games before Thursday's game at Toronto -- Crosby is not.
"I think it's not a surprise," Crosby told ESPN.com Wednesday. "He's found maybe more of a scoring touch than he's had in the past, but I think he's doing a lot of the same things and it's just nice he's getting results and getting recognized. Because he does a lot of things out there that leads to success."
The doubters will point to the fact Kunitz is playing on a line with the best player in the world in Crosby. But the best player in the world is quick to point out that Kunitz has helped his game as well.
"He's a great guy to play with," Crosby said. "Anyone who has played with him will tell you that he does so many little things.
"He's always been a guy that really goes to the net hard, every shift he's always around the net, but I think he's also finding different areas to score, too. I've never seen him in areas where he's just more ready to shoot as he is this year. He's finding different ways to score."
A veteran scout for a Western Conference team who has watched Kunitz play many times over the years believes this is no fluke.
"He's not just an opportunist, he's got speed, he's got edge, and he's got finish," the scout told ESPN.com Thursday. "Those three things, even just two of those things, can put you in a good spot. But when you have all three and playing with a guy that clearly is going in Crosby, you're going to produce. And they've got so many weapons on that team, it's hard to focus on just a few guys. Yes, he's having a year like he's never had, but it's not as if he's come out of nowhere. He's always been a player with tremendous competitiveness and has always gone to the tough areas where you need to go to."
Kunitz played mostly with Evgeni Malkin last season when Crosby missed a big chunk recovering from his concussion issues.
Malkin won the Hart Trophy. This season Kunitz is back with Crosby and guess who's the leading candidate to win the Hart?
Kunitz sounded embarrassed when that little trend was suggested to him.
"I don't think that at all," he chuckled. "The skill set that our top two centers have here, I've been pretty lucky to play with both at different times over the past few years. A lot of fun to play with those guys."
Kunitz and Crosby skated together during the lockout and that re-energized their chemistry as well.
"We were fortunate during the lockout to be skating all together and watching what he was doing every day on the ice and how hard he worked," Kunitz said. "That pushes us to work harder and get better to try and keep up with him."
Fact is, Kunitz has been blessed indeed in terms of linemates in his NHL career. He's skated alongside the likes of McDonald, Selanne and Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim. Then he gets Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh.
"I definitely can't complain," laughed Kunitz. "I've definitely been fortunate in my career to be put on some lines with quite a few skilled players. I've always just tried to keep my game simple, play in straight lines and go to the areas on the ice where I need to. The sooner I realized that, the more success I had."
This season, it's all come together at a whole new level at the age of 33. His current point-a-game production spread out over 82 games would net him 112 points.
Just don't tell him that.
"I try not to think about it too much," Kunitz said of his magical season. "But one of my teammates told me the other day that even if I don't get another point this year I'd still have a better point ratio than at any other point in my career. Obviously things are going good. I've never been a big point-driven guy. But I have to keep going with it, keep putting pucks on the net. It's amazing though how easy Sid makes it for us."