Chris Kunitz, left, and Sidney Crosby have a chemistry that Team Canada might find hard to ignore come February.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There are more skilled wingers in the NHL than Chris Kunitz.
Faster ones, too.
And some who are more physically imposing.
But Kunitz, the Penguins' first-line left winger, can offer something nearly no one else can, and it might be enough to earn him a spot on the 2014 Canadian Olympic team.
Kunitz, you see, has a well-established chemistry with center Sidney Crosby, who figures to be a cornerstone for Team Canada at the Games in Sochi, Russia, in February.
Because Olympic teams have so little time to jell, having players with a history of working well together could have a major impact on personnel decisions.
"I think that would be my only chance," Kunitz said. "Playing [with Crosby] and having chemistry, trying to carry that over."
Crosby noted that there are numerous precedents for national teams to select guys who play together under regular circumstances because they don't need time to figure out how to mesh. Assuming they are able to at all, which never can be assumed.
He pointed to the Canadian squad that won gold at the 2010 Olympics, when an entire unit was transplanted from San Jose and another pair of forwards was brought in from Anaheim.
"If you look in the past, a lot of teams have done that," Crosby said. "They look for that comfort level with guys who have played together.
"We had a whole line in Vancouver, [Patrick] Marleau, [Joe] Thornton and [Dany]) Heatley. [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Corey] Perry [of the Ducks] played together.
"They definitely look for those combinations, that familiarity between players. I think that's a huge plus."
Kunitz, whose involvement with national teams is limited to one appearance in the world championships, was one of 25 forwards invited to participate in Canada's Olympic orientation camp in Calgary in late August.
"Until last summer, I didn't really ever think it was ever going to be a possibility [to play in the Games]," he said.
There's no guarantee he will make the cut for Sochi. Canada general manager Steve Yzerman and his staff still are evaluating players, and there's no shortage of quality wingers vying for roster spots.
"The elite class of guys who were invited to that camp, who are going to be on that team, they're going to bring something special to every line," Kunitz said.
But Kunitz can offer something none of those other candidates can -- he's the only one who lines up alongside Crosby on a regular basis -- in addition to a solid, responsible style that would fit in well on any team, in any setting.
"He just has to worry about doing his thing," Crosby said. "His game is really simple. He works hard and creates a lot from the forecheck and going into tough areas. All he has to do is focus on that."
An ocean worth crossing
Count David Morehouse, the Penguins' president and CEO, among those who believe the NHL should try to expand its footprint on the far side of the Atlantic.
"I think the league should be interested in doing more in Europe," he said. "It's a ripe market. I think we have to do more than just play a game there, though.
"We should have a whole package -- I know they're working on some of this stuff that includes TV rights and some marketing around the league -- and having some activation by having teams go over and play regular-season games.
"I think northern Europe is ripe for the NHL."
The week ahead
Monday: vs. Colorado ... Avalanche apparently didn't get the word that it isn't supposed to compete for anything except a high draft choice this season.
Friday: vs. New York Islanders ... The Penguins get their first look of the season at a talented young club that gave them fits at times during Round 1 of the playoffs this spring.
Saturday: at Toronto ... Penguins should be prepared to have a real fight on their hands at Air Canada Centre. Several of them, actually, given how frequently the Maple Leafs drop their gloves.