Chris Kunitz is the most underrated Pittsburgh Penguin

Chris Kunitz's resume reads as one of a consummate teammate.

Kunitz won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. He spent much of the 2010 season skating alongside Sidney Crosby as he won a share of the Rocket Richard trophy. Currently, he flanks Evgeni Malkin while the Russian playmaker leads the NHL in scoring, acting as a key cog in an efficient, effective machine.

But his value is found even more-so when watching him in action, and reading beyond the most highly celebrated of numbers.

When Kunitz is not scoring, he's using his physicality with great affect, leading all Penguins forwards in hits with 105. And when he's not hitting, he's causing havoc all around the offensive zone.

As the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review's Chris Harlan wrote earlier this week:

Ask Evgeni Malkin or James Neal, and they'll say without hesitation that teammate Chris Kunitz is always getting in the way.

For instance, when Malkin was making a quick pass and Neal was scoring the game-tying goal Sunday, Kunitz was standing in the way.

And earlier that game, when Kris Letang was blasting a 60-foot goal from the blue line, Kunitz was there in the way.

Both times the Penguins forward was skating in front of Washington's net, blocking the view of Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth. Kunitz didn't earn an assist on either goal, but neither happened without his subtle help.

Or not-so-subtle help, if you were Neuvirth trying to see around him.

"Kunitz may not be the flashiest first-line player in the league, but there's speed, there's grit, and there's a net-front presence," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "There's a lot to his game that maybe doesn't get on the scoresheet. (Against the Capitals), he did some of his best work in and around the net."

...

"His screen takes the vision away from the goalie just for a split-second and I get a chance to shoot it," said Neal, whose goal with 12:54 left helped extend the team's winning streak to six entering tonight's game in St. Louis. "We're playing as a line. Kuny does those things that go unnoticed every night."

Kunitz's work on two of the Penguins' goals against the Capitals is evidenced in the following clip:

On Letang's goal it's fairly simple to see Kuntiz doggedly screening Neuvirth. Nothing against Letang's capable shot from the point, but an NHL goaltender makes that save if he can see the puck.

The second goal is far more subtle. Pay attention to Kunitz lined up to the right of the faceoff circle, with Malkin taking the draw. Neal is lined up behind to take a shot should Malkin win the draw cleanly, which he does. Immediately after the drop of the puck, Kunitz skates directly into the circle, briefly obstructing the path of a potential Capital shot-blocker and simultaneously creating a screen.

Neal has time and space to shoot, and blasts a one-timed shot past Neuvirth.

Kunitz doesn't register a point on either play.

As Neal said:

"He's so hard to play against, so he opens up a lot of space for myself and Geno. Sometimes that goes unnoticed."

While his 14 goals and 18 assists account for the third highest point total on the Penguins' roster, it is this type of havoc Kunitz reeks against opposition that often goes unaccounted for, while he falls in the considerable shadows of linemates Malkin and Neal.

With the decisiveness of a Republican primary, Kunitz earned 26 percent of our popular vote and is PensBurgh's most-underrated Penguin at the midway point of the season.

Voting was close across the eight-nominee board, with Paul Martin and Richard Park accounting for the lowest vote totals at 7 percent a piece. But after day or so, Kunitz began to pull away from the pack, nearly doubling the vote count of second place finisher Matt Niskanen.

Kunitz has historically faced injury problems, and has not played more than 72 games in a season since 2007-08, when he was still an Anaheim Duck. Last season, he only featured in 66 games for the Penguins, an increase over the 50 he played in 2009-10. Currently, he's one of only six Penguins to have dressed for all 49 games this season.

When he's healthy, he does a job, and a very important one at that. While it may go unnoticed to a portion of the Penguins' fanbase, his teammates, coaches and over a quarter of Pensburgh voters can see, and value, Chris Kuntiz' worth.

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