Chris Kunitz would love to make his first Olympic team, but in the meantime, he is busy showing his worth to the Penguins.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SUNRISE, Fla. -- It's easy to make a case for Chris Kunitz.
The top-line left winger ranked 11th in the NHL in scoring going into Sunday's games with 27 points in 28 games. Since the start of last season, Kunitz has 79 points in 76 games.
He ranked seventh for 2013-14 with 14 goals -- including three in a weekend sweep at Tampa Bay and Florida. One of his two against the Lightning stood as his team-leading third game-winner, and his goal against the Panthers was his sixth on the power play. He ranked fifth in the NHL in that category.
He was in the top 20 in the league with a robust plus-minus rating of plus-12. He has at least a point in 21 of the Penguins' 28 games.
He also ranks third on the team with 65 hits and can be counted on to forge the area around the front of the opponent's net, whether at even strength or on the power play.
For good measure, he hasn't missed a game the past three seasons.
What gets lost sometimes -- particularly across Kunitz's native Canada -- is just what all those statistics mean.
There is loud sentiment for the Canadian Olympic team to include him on its roster for the 2014 Sochi Games. That decision will need to be made in the next three or four weeks, if it hasn't already been made by general manager Steve Yzerman and his staff.
But on a day-to-day basis, Kunitz is also proving his worth at what he recently referred to as his "day job."
All those numbers, all that value -- and even his ballyhooed chemistry with elite center Sidney Crosby -- aren't happening in air. Every bit of it is benefiting the Penguins, regardless of whether Team Canada is watching.
"We appreciate everything he does and what he brings to our team," Crosby said. "That's really got to be his focus."
Kunitz would love to make his first -- and, at age 34, perhaps his only -- trip to the Olympics. But he won't lobby.
"I don't have any secrets about what I'm trying to do or not trying to do," he said. "I just go out and try to play my game and try to help my ... cause, I guess. Hopefully that helps our team's chances of winning every night."
Kunitz has won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim and one with the Penguins. He has topped 20 goals six times -- including 22 in 48 games last season, which was shortened by a lockout -- and reached 19 in another.
Still, he's largely unassuming and appreciative of what he has accomplished.
"I was never drafted, none of those things, came out of college [at Ferris State] as an unrestricted free agent," he said. "So it's fun to put up the numbers, but to win the championships is the best part of being on a team sport, to be able to share that with the other players, the other families and have those memories.
"I don't remember scoring a 20th goal. I couldn't tell you where it happened. To be a 20-goal scorer doesn't mean as much as to be on one of those teams that had a championship."
Whether he will get a crack at trying to win a gold medal with Canada might hinge on the value that team's management puts on Kunitz's chemistry with Crosby.
In fact, some critics would consider Kunitz's inclusion on Team Canada a matter of riding Crosby's coattails. That makes Penguins coach Dan Bylsma bristle.
"I've heard people say, 'Well, what happens if he's not playing with Crosby?' " Bylsma said. "My only answer to that was, he's maybe been on [one of the NHL's] the top four lines in the last three years -- with Sid and without Sid."
In 2011-12, Kunitz had career highs with 26 goals and 61 points. Crosby missed 60 games that season because of a concussion and neck injury, so Kunitz spent most of the season playing with center Evgeni Malkin and right winger James Neal.
Malkin scored a career-high 50 goals, won the league scoring title and the Hart Trophy as MVP. Neal had career highs with 40 goals and 81 points.
"I know that I'm fortunate enough to have played with some really good players, and with some really good players that are cornerstones of their countries for when it goes to that level," Kunitz said.
Malkin will be playing for the host country of Russia at the Sochi Games.
Kunitz is far from flashy, to the point where he could be accused of putting anti-dipsy-doodle spray on his stick, and in fact he craves the confidence it takes for Bylsma to use him in critical situations that have nothing to do with offense.
"One of the things that needs to be keyed on is being in a defensive role, to be put out in your own end in the last two minutes of a game," he said.
Bylsma seems to trust Kunitz in any big role.
"He's not as dynamic maybe as some of the other wingers. ... But he certainly has proven his worth, what he can do on an offensive line with good players," Bylsma said.
Whether Kunitz has adequately proven that to Team Canada remains to be seen. He has things to occupy his time until then.
"I don't want to get sidetracked from what your day job is, and that's to go out and play for the Penguins," Kunitz said.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly.
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