This past weekend in the back-to-back against Philadelphia, Chris Kunitz was out of the lineup for the first time since back the 2010-11 season. His loss was paralyzing for the Pens offense and nobody felt it more than regular linemate Sidney Crosby. In the two games, Crosby was held pointless with only five shots and was a combined -15 at even strength shot attempts. It was bad.
Kunitz returned Tuesday against Dallas and the difference was fairly obvious from the start. Crosby was everywhere, and it didn’t take long before both found themselves on the scoresheet.
Throughout the Olympics the talk was about how much Crosby meant to Kunitz. But after such a stark contrast in performances from Crosby these last few days, the question we were left with was exactly how valuable is Kunitz to Crosby –and the Penguins in general.
Basic things we already know about Kunitz this season include his 32 goals with 14-games to play already being a career high. Earlier this season he netted the 200th of his career. Only Alex Ovechkin has more goals the last two seasons. His 13 goals on the power play are good for second in the league. He won a gold medal with Team Canada in Sochi. He’s been one of the most consistent Penguins for as long as we can remember. Somewhere in between all of this he and his wife had a baby.
It’s been all gravy but there’s more.
This season the Pens are 35-7 when Kunitz scores a point. When he does not score they are 11-12-4. And when he scores two, they’re 15-0. That seems really important.
Nearly every Penguin has been a better possession player (shot attempt differential) while paired on the ice with Kunitz. As the possession chart below shows, the only players who are not are defensemen Kris Letang and Deryk Engelland.
This ability to make nearly everyone around him better is equally impressive considering Kunitz faces the highest average quality of competition on the team.
Now would be a good time for the obligatory reminder that this guy wasn’t drafted and at one point was traded with Eric Tangradi for an afterthought of Ryan Whitney.
It’s no secret that a big part of Kunitz’s success stems from his ability to generate chances directly in front of the net where the highest number of goals in the NHL are scored. The heat chart illustrating his shot locations shouldn’t surprise you.
No question that his work in front is a huge reason for his success on the power play, and the team’s success there in general. His average shot distance of 24.28 ft is second lowest on the team to Brian Gibbons, who has only taken 24 shots total. Strictly for comparison to other noted net-front presence players, Corey Perry is at 22.45 ft and James van Riemdyk is at 22.97 ft.
As far as the correlation between Kunitz and Crosby goes, when not paired on the ice with Kunitz at 5-on-5, Crosby has a mere two points all season, and only four if you go back into last season. Granted these two spend the majority of their time on the ice together, but only four points away from Kunitz the last two seasons is a staggering number.
The chemistry Kunitz and Crosby have together is invaluable and can’t be measured or graphed. Actually, nothing can really explain the cross-rink pass Crosby sent to Kunitz which led to the goal from new linemate Lee Stempniak Tuesday night. In only four games together the group has amassed a combined 18 points. The sample size is still very small, but if Stempniak can continue to tap-in to that existing chemistry it could pay huge dividends down the line for the Pens.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest indication of Kunitz’s value is the fact that the Penguins have very little to offer by means of a replacement. While he was out this past weekend, Crosby at times found himself between guys such as Taylor Pyatt and Tanner Glass. At other times, it was Craig Adams and Brian Gibbons. We touched on Crosby’s lack of production without Kunitz, and while it could be argued that Crosby would eventually find a way to excel with anyone, the truth remains that these guys probably wouldn’t be on a top-line in the AHL.
While Crosby may be the most valuable player in the league, Kunitz is seemingly the most valuable player to Crosby. Since almost all of the Pens offensive production goes through their top-two lines, the Pens will need Kunitz to stay healthy if they wish to remain serious contenders as the playoffs approach.