Kunitz had a trump card though: In addition to being one of a bunch of left-wing candidates on his own merits, he had the advantage of being a regular linemate of star centre Sidney Crosby. The thinking was that in a tournament with minimal time for preparation, Kunitz and Crosby would be able to hit the ground running owing to their familiarity and already existing chemistry.
Two games into the tournament, that theory is looking decidedly underwhelming.
For the first game, Kunitz and Crosby were joined by Los Angeles Kings right wing Jeff Carter on Canada's top line. The line was able to generate some shots (Carter had three) but no goals as the Canadians only managed to outscore Norway by a 3-1 margin.
Head coach Mike Babcock shifted his lines for the second game, moving Carter off the top line and replacing him with Martin St. Louis.
Once again, the Crosby trio managed to get shots (St. Louis led the way with four) but didn't score. Carter, moving around the lineup, scored three goals to power Canada to a 6-0 victory over Austria. Crosby managed to get his first point of the tournament (an assist on Carter's first goal of the game) in a rare shift without Kunitz as a penalty expired.
Two games in, Kunitz is the only Canadian forward who is not a plus player—the only player to participate in both games (which Canada won by a combined score of 9-1) not to hold a "+" next to his number in the plus/minus column.
That isn't really a big deal, except that he's on Canada's most important line, he hasn't looked good during the games and he isn't shooting either. The following chart shows how many minutes each of Canada's wingers takes to fire a shot:
|Martin St. Louis||2||5||23.8||4.8|
Patrick Sharp, who played on Canada's designated checking line on opening night and was scratched against the Austrians, is the only player on this list ranked below Kunitz. That's a problem, especially since Kunitz is playing in a starring offensive role next to the best player in the world.
Normally, such a short sample wouldn't mean much; two games is only two games. But with such a thin margin for error, Canada cannot afford to play important games with a top line that just isn't getting the job done.
The problem isn't the other winger (both Carter and St. Louis have been good) and it hasn't been Crosby (who has set up most of those shots from Carter and St. Louis). The problem has been Kunitz, who looks out of his element on the Olympic ice.
It isn't so much that Kunitz has been bad; nobody on Canada has really been "bad" against Norway and Austria. The problem is that, on his own merits, Kunitz isn't a good enough player to be the left wing on Canada's best line, and the one thing that set him apart from the other left wings vying for that spot—chemistry with Crosby—hasn't been visible.
This should not really be a surprise. The fact is that, while Kunitz has spent a lot of time with Crosby, he really hasn't been a far superior fit to other teammates Crosby has played with.
When Eric Tulsky of SB Nation looked at Crosby's effect on his linemates, he found that Kunitz's scoring rates jumped by 51 percent. That's a remarkable number, but it is also the simple reality of playing with Crosby; Pascal Dupuis' scoring improved by 49 percent, Evgeni Malkin's rose by 51 percent, Bill Guerin spiked by 50 percent and so on.
Playing with Crosby improves a player's scoring numbers, whether that player is Chris Kunitz or someone else.
As Carter said, via USA Today, "I think for whoever plays with him, you've just got to kind of listen to him. He'll tell you where to go to be in the right spots. He's going to find you and when you get the chance you've got to get it to the net."
Before Kunitz was welded to Crosby's wing, he generally scored at a 50- to 60-point pace—strong totals but hardly overwhelming ones and certainly not sufficient production for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. That Kunitz broke out as a scorer in his early 30s, when most players are in their decline, suggests rather strongly that the bump in his totals has more to do with the centre he plays with than an evolution in his own game.
It's tempting, then, to wonder what a player who has had a more impressive start to his career than Kunitz—someone like John Tavares, Matt Duchene or Jamie Benn—would look like given the same opportunity to play with a talent like Crosby. Given Kunitz's struggles in the role, it is time for the Canadian coaches to stop wondering and see for themselves.