Chris Kunitz signed with the Chicago Blackhawks on July 1, 2018 as a free agent. Here are my thoughts on the signing and my grade for his performance in 2018-19.
The summer of 2018 was an off-season of hope for the Chicago Blackhawks. General manager Stan Bowman had traded inactive Marian Hossa to the Arizona Coyotes, thus shedding his $5.275 million hit against the team’s salary cap. By doing so, he opened up the possibility of obtaining sorely needed defensive help, offensive depth, and a reliable backup goalie. What materialized was severely underwhelming in the form of Brandon Manning, Chris Kunitz, and Cam Ward.
Manning was who we thought he was, and was eventually shipped to Edmonton for forward Drake Caggiula. Ward was good enough to eat up a lot of hours when Crawford went down with another concussion. Kunitz was the guy with the pedigree of four Stanley Cup rings, who would bring more veteran leadership to the ‘Hawks. The question was, with the championship core all age 30 and over, where was the need for more veteran leadership? More importantly, what did a 39-year old Kunitz still have to offer in terms of value?
That Was Then, This Is Now
When you look at Kunitz’s career, he was a Calder Trophy candidate, 3-time Selke Trophy candidate, 1-time All Star Game appointee, and as previously mentioned, a 4-time Stanley Cup Champion. Over his 15-year NHL career, he has played in 1022 games, scoring 268 goals, 351 assists, and 619 points. The constant knock on his successful 9-year stint in Pittsburgh was that he was simply riding the coattails of Sidney Crosby.
What worked for Kunitz in Anaheim and Pittsburgh never really took hold here in Chicago. Kunitz found himself up and down from one line to another, and in and out of the lineup. In 56 games, he scored 5 goals, 5 assists, 10 points, and was a minus-7 with 23 penalty minutes.
If we look at his 2018-19 season, we see that he had a miserable start to the season. He had a favorable percentage of offensive zone starts with good Corsi, but had a terrible goals for/against differential. His veteran presence was not having a positive impact stat-wise and by the eye test. By the quarter mark, he was becoming a regular healthy scratch.
Shortly after, something somewhat controversial happened. In a move that frustrated many fans, Kunitz was reinserted into the lineup, mainly on the fourth line with Marcus Kruger and David Kampf. This fourth line took a majority of defensive zone starts and was very effective in their limited minutes in Corsi and plus/minus. Once Kunitz had his role defined as a grinder on the fourth line, he embraced that role and played well. The original intent of veteran leadership was finally realized, as he showed the younger players that even a 4-time Stanley Cup champion could grind on the fourth line.
This Is How We Do It
I previously wrote about David Kampf as having the potential to become a solid shutdown center. We can owe part of his development to his partnership with Kunitz, the former Selke award nominee.
While Kunitz was not a scoring factor in 5-on-5 or on the power play, he did play a significant role on the penalty kill. There is a dramatic difference with him on the ice. In his PK time, opponents were taking shots further from the net and less in quantity overall.
Although Kunitz looked like a total bust to start the season, he did finish strong once his role as a bottom-six grinder was firmly established. His forechecking was solid, he was delivering timely hits, and his defensive zone presence was reliable. His season start was a D- but his end of season was a C+. After combining the two grades, I give him a final grade of C-.
Kunitz probably won’t return next season, as the team will look to further reinvent its identity over the summer. We’ll take a moment to congratulate him on reaching the 1000-game milestone in a Blackhawks sweater.
We should also look back and thank Kunitz for his mentor-ship to the young players in a lost season. When he scored his fifth goal in the second to last game of the season, you could see just how much his teammates loved him. Their congratulations aren’t in the video, but we’ll take one last look at Kunitz in action.