There are no guarantees in life and NHL free agency, but there appears to be little standing in the way of a reunion between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chris Kunitz.
As reported by the Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey earlier this week, the Penguins would like to find a way to bring the veteran left wing back into the fold for 2018-19, ideally at a lower rate than the $2 million the Lightning paid for Kunitz’s services last season. Pittsburgh Hockey Now has learned Tuesday that not only is Kunitz on board with a second stint with the Penguins, but also his longtime former center Sidney Crosby has reached out to gauge Kunitz’s feelings on the situation.
Combine that with the fact that the Kunitz family has held onto a home in Pittsburgh’s South Hills while selling their offseason abode near Chicago, and there’s enough smoke rising from this particular topic to anticipate fire once the NHL’s free-agency period begins on Sunday, July 1.
The primary issue from the Penguins’ point of view will be fitting Kunitz, who could be considered a luxury, under the league’s salary cap. With the Tuesday morning signing of Bryan Rust to a four-year contract worth $3.5 million annually, the Penguins have roughly $5 million with which to work.
Signs point to Jamie Oleksiak returning, since the team tendered the restricted free agent a qualifying offer before Monday’s deadline. Riley Sheahan was not given a qualifying offer, however, indicating how close the Penguins might be cutting it to the upper limit of the $79.5 million cap.
Also, the signings of Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon on Monday give the Penguins a potential overabundance of wingers. They currently have eight under contract for 2018-19, plus there is interest in free-agent winger Anthony Duclair, as PHN learned Monday evening. If they want Kunitz, too, that would likely mean a winger or two is about to get traded, perhaps to bolster defensive depth.
Kunitz, who will turn 39 a week before opening night, is an unrestricted free agent. Last summer, after nine seasons in Pittsburgh, the Penguins allowed him to bolt via free agency to the Lightning. Sources indicated then that Kunitz was waiting for an offer from the Penguins which never came.
Kunitz played in all 82 games last regular season. He scored 29 points (13g, 16a) along the way, but had just one assist in the playoffs. That scoring slump was reminiscent of Kunitz’s coming up dry in the goal department during the 2017 postseason, when he netted his lone two tallies in a Game 7 defeat of the Senators in the Eastern Conference final.
The biggest concern for the Penguins should be that Kunitz’s possession numbers and individual shot creation have both taken a serious tumble lately. Always a strong play generator prior to 2016-17, Kunitz has had an on-ice shot share worse than his team average in two straight years, and his shot attempt rate was down about 50 percent last year, from over 12 per 60 minutes to 8.5.
Part of the problem for Kunitz could be that he’s been untethered from elite players over the past two seasons. He spent less than a third of his even-strength ice time with Crosby in 2016-17, then he was tethered to checking-line center Cedric Paquette last season with Tampa Bay. Of course, Kunitz is likely a lesser player himself, which would cause coaches to bump him down the line chart.