Friday, December 27, 2013

Chris Kunitz conundrum: Is it really that hard to play with great NHL players?

December 27, 2013

Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz

The thing that we're starting to hear more and more ahead of the announcement of the U.S. and Canadian Olympic rosters is the ultimate question of, “Who's going to play with Sidney Crosby?”
One would imagine that logic dictates you put a guy like Steven Stamkos (if healthy) or Logan Couture alongside him, as a means of being a triggerman for Crosby's singular ability to set up plays. You want, one would further imagine, the best chance to provide Crosby with someone who is going to bury the chances the best player in the world gifts to him a few dozen times over the course of the tournament, as they have shown a repeated ability to put up big goal totals in the National Hockey League.
But no, there are some in the hockey media, and management ranks, who say that what's really important, especially because these tournaments are so short, is chemistry. It is for this reason that the drums are now banging louder all the time for Chris Kunitz of all people to start playing Crosby's wing. After all, they play together in Pittsburgh, and Crosby has 54 points in 39 games, and some of that has to be down to Kunitz's contributions, right?
This bizarre Olympic hopeful — who has scored 60 points in a season just twice, but seems on his way again, and would have been closer to 90 had last year been a full campaign — has of course had his candidacy for Sochi, much like most of the earnings he'll pull on the new contract that starts next season, to Crosby's greatness. But the argument as it now stands is that while yes of course he is a complement to the best player alive, none are better-suited to the job than he.
There is that familiarity, obviously, but the idea has constantly been put forth that Kunitz should go to Sochi ahead of, say, anyone who's not merely a complementary player because “Crosby isn't easy to play with,” which is patently absurd. This same kind of logic, extended to other players, would be immediately seen as silly.
No one thinks that it's hard to get points playing alongside Alex Ovechkin, and to some extent one has to wonder just how good Marcus Johansson or Nicklas Backstrom really are if they're racking up these silly assist totals playing on his line. Get him the puck, and let him score and you're on close to an assist a game. Careers, admittedly, have been made on less.
To that end, the number of even-strength points Kunitz has scored without Crosby on the ice in the past four seasons, all of which saw him exceed his career points-per-game average, is 55 points. That's not an especially small amount, you might say. However, the number of those that came alongside another moderately good player named Evgeni Malkin instead is 40. Meaning that he's getting big minutes alongside the two best players on the planet, and he's delivering.
But the question, then, becomes, “Who couldn't?”
Is there a top-six NHL forward alive Crosby couldn't get to 30 goals just by giving them the kind of TOI Kunitz pulls? By that logic, you'd think we can't be so far removed from Pascal Dupuis of all people scoring 20 in a 48-game season (his previous career high being 25 in 82) that we shouldn't also consider putting him on the top line for Sochi, too. It is, after all, very tough to find two one wing to play with Crosby, let alone two.
You have to wonder from whence that kind of bad idea springs. It seems a terrible inefficiency of the market, the kind of things that gets Kevin Stevens capital-P Paid despite the fact that he never did much of anything without Mario Lemieux no more than 15 feet away from him at any time. And really, that's not so extreme an example.
In a recent story on the subject by Pierre LeBrun, Dan Bylsma pointed out that Kunitz has played well in the past, before anyone ever thought to stick him with Crosby. After all, he put up 60 and then 50 points when he was still with Anaheim in 2006-07, and 2007-08. Pretty impressive, until you consider that his linemates in those seasons were mostly Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Which, likewise, is going to be conducive to scoring a lot more than you probably would have otherwise.
None of this, by the way, is not to say that Kunitz isn't a perfectly good player in his own right, because he's clearly good enough to excel in these roles. But when you're making the argument that Canada could ice three Olympic teams and all of them would have a reasonable shot at medalling, then you're saying those forwards who make the first team are top-12 in the country, and probably top-25 in the world. Make a list of the best forwards from Canada, though, and you have to probably get down into the 40s or 50s before you arrive at Kuntiz's name when taken on his own.
The fact of the matter is that it can't be too hard to play with Crosby, or Malkin, or Ovechkin, or Stamkos, or Getzlaf, or Perry, or any other top-flight player in the world. Certainly, some guys will be better suited to do it than others, because you couldn't put, say, Chris Kelly with one of those guys and see him do as well as a Kunitz-type player would. Obviously.
But take Kunitz away from elite players, and you have to imagine that point-a-game pace goes away rather quickly.
Take Crosby away from Kunitz, and there's likely to be little change in his ability to put up points. It really isn't that difficult for a coach to tell just about any good-sized hockey player, “Go to the front of the net and be ready to tap in rebounds and miracle passes.” Said player has to keep his stick on the ice, and that's about as difficult as it is to score with Crosby.
Essentially, when you're arguing in favor of Kunitz, you're arguing against a much better player making the roster instead. Do you leave home Claude Giroux for him? Eric Staal? Marty St. Louis? Joe Thornton? Tyler Seguin? Taylor Hall? Patrick Sharp? Matt Duchene? The list goes on and on and on and on. Kunitz isn't ahead of any of them on paper, so why should he be on the ice?
Maybe this goes back to the concern that Crosby didn't have the greatest Olympics in Vancouver. That's been said a lot lately too. Sure, they say, he scored the gold-winning goal, but what did he do beyond that? He merely went 3-3-6 in the previous six games against the best competition from the teams in the world. That was Jonathan Toews' victory, we're told; but he had only one goal.
This once again boils down to that idea that you have to build a “roster” rather than an “All-Star team” if you want to win, and it's straight nonsense with a BS chaser. It's not that chemistry isn't a thing that matters in hockey, but when you're allowing it to supersede what should be extremely easy decisions — such as “Don't put Chris Kunitz on your Canadian Olympic roster” — you're just not giving yourself the best chance to win, and thereby giving your opponents an advantage. Who would do that on purpose?
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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