Yesterday I outlined which Pittsburgh Penguins I thought would be capable of playing in the 2014 Winter Olympics. One of the players who I considered to be a shoo-in was Chris Kunitz, which might seem strange since that would mean leaving a player like teammate James Neal at home.
Slowly but surely, Kunitz is building his case to wear the maple leaf when the Winter Games roll around. For folks who only read game recaps or catch glimpses of the Penguins on SportsCenter, it's easy to hitch Kunitz's chances of making the team directly to his relationship with Sidney Crosby.
Here's the thing though: If the 34-year-old was playing on the first line of the Buffalo Sabres like he is in Pittsburgh, he would still be garnering attention from Team Canada's brass because of what he brings to the table on a nightly basis, aside from being the Kid's wingman.
Ability to Score from the Dirty Areas
At the heart of the argument for Kunitz to go to Sochi is the simple fact that he's a proven goal scorer. He's 11th in the NHL in points right now and ranks eighth in goals. Among his fellow Canadians, he's sixth in scoring and fourth in goals.
He's put the puck in the net more frequently than Matt Duchene, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares, Patrick Sharp and Martin St. Louis—but so what? Canada is loaded with goal scorers, so why does that make Kunitz special?
The fact that he's finishing his chances isn't important. It's where he's scoring those goals. According to SportingCharts.com, Kunitz shoots the puck from about 22 feet away on average. Look at the breakdown of where he scores from.
All but one of his goals this season have come from directly in front of the net. The marker that came from the far right boards was during a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets where Kunitz just got the puck to the net, it hit a few deflections and found a way in.
While he's risen to prominence since becoming a member of the Penguins, this is what Kunitz has always done. He's always been a beast in front of the net, and a majority of his career goals have come from within a foot or two of the crease.
Compare that to a guy like, say, Neal, and you'll see why it should be Kunitz heading to Sochi. He's capable of playing in the dirty areas and is proficient in digging the puck out of the corners as well.
You won't see Kunitz taking part in any All-Star game speed skating contests, but there's no denying that the forward has speed to burn. He doesn't have game-altering wheels like Steven Stamkos or Duchene, but he's got the horses needed to keep up with guys like that.
With the larger ice surfaces in Sochi, speed is going to be vital.
In July, team general manager Steve Yzerman spoke to CBC Sports about the emphasis he was placing on velocity:
I believe there is a priority and importance in being able to get around the ice to skate. That will weigh into our final decisions on putting this team together. There will be more of a premium price on skating.
Canada's coach, Mike Babcock, reiterated Yzerman's sentiment when he told CBC Sports that "...we have a whole bunch of guys that can skate, move the puck, are really dangerous offensively but understand how the game's supposed to be played with and without the puck."
Kunitz fits this bill perfectly. Not only can he score, but he has the quickness and hockey IQ that people like Yzerman and Babcock are looking for while piecing this team together. Couple that with his play in the corners and in front of the net, and his status as a shoo-in becomes even clearer.
Perhaps more important than anything else is that Kunitz knows how to win big hockey games. The NHL is littered with talented individuals who wilt under the brightest of spotlights. Several of those players could very well end up in Sochi with Team Canada while some guys will be left at home because of their reputations as guys who come up short when the games loom large.
For proof of that, look no farther than Pittsburgh's net.
He's been in the locker rooms of teams that have come up short, and he's been there when the champagne starts flying. Kunitz is aware of all the little things that it takes to win a Stanley Cup, so he's also aware of the attention to detail it would take to win a gold medal as well.
OK, OK...and Kunitz is pretty good alongside Crosby to boot.
Not only should Kunitz be a no-brainer and a lock to play in the Winter Olympics, he should be made one of the main cogs in the Canadian machine as well.
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