I don’t have a horse in the race, because I’m not Canadian. But if Steve Yzerman and the powers that be for Hockey Canada asked me, it’d be very beneficial to their Olympic hopes if they brought Chris Kunitz to Sochi with them.
You can’t talk Chris Kunitz without mentioning Sidney Crosby, the best hockey player in the world. Kunitz plays on Crosby’s left wing. Does Kunitz owe a measure of his success to Crosby? Surely. But evidence shows that Crosby also plays better when he’s with Kunitz. In 280:40 so far this season when Kunitz+Crosby have been on the ice at 5 on 5, they have a 58.0 Corsi For %, and a 1.2 goals for/20 compared to just a .43 goals against/20.
When Crosby plays without Kunitz, as he’s done for 57:00 this year at even strength, his numbers drop to just a 50.9 CF%, a 0.35 goals for/20 and a 2.8 goals against/20. It’s a limited sample size (although 57 full minutes is nothing to dismiss completely) but the data that is around is very clear- Sidney Crosby plays better with Chris Kunitz than without him.
As the deepest pure pool of talent, Canada will have options. There’s no doubt that several forwards could play well with Crosby, and with the sheer amount of talent at Canada’s beck and call, they have any number of options. But, most of the elite Canadian forwards (Crosby, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Getzlaf, Logan Couture, Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter and Eric Staal to name a few) are all natural centers. Some of them can and will play wing for the national team in the Olympics but the best pure wingers in national team consideration are Corey Perry, Martin St. Louis, Patrick Sharp, Rick Nash, Taylor Hall and Milan Lucic. Some of those players won’t make it to Sochi, but pretty much the 16 names mentioned in this paragraph are pretty much the finalists for roster spots at this point.
Of those mentioned above, Chris Kunitz is probably the best to work in front of a net on the power play, as he does for the Penguins top unit. Lucic, while having size, isn’t as impressive here as Kunitz on the man advantage (0 goals, 3 assists in 2:05 per night for Lucic compared to 3g, 4a in 3:58 for Kunitz). Of the names above, especially among the wingers, Kunitz is among the better forecheckers, working the walls, corners to battle for loose pucks and regain possession. Dirty work for a team composed of a lot of skill is a role that Kunitz could fill.
In 2013 and 2013-14, Kunitz has scored 70 points (31g, 39a) in 70 games, good for 7th place among Canadian born forwards- and 2nd among natural wingers (only Crosby, St. Louis, Stamkos, Getzlaf, Tavares and Toews are ahead of him). Kunitz’s has the 3rd highest amount of goals, his shooting percentage is high (16.8%), but not an unrealistically huge number that isn’t sustainable- especially when one considers where Kunitz is often shooting (and scoring) from in tight to the net If you subscribe to the defensive point shares stat that hockey-reference runs, Kunitz ranks 1st in that measure too among Canadian forwards for the timeframe..
Kunitz has the skating ability to keep up with Crosby, who he has a natural and familiar chemistry with. Their styles mesh, and I don’t see many Canadian wingers that would play better with Crosby than Kunitz would. Patrice Bergeron used to be a staple Crosby international linemate, but the two failed to get much going in Vancouver in 2010. A youngster like Couture or Duchene stylistically seems to match and would probably be my pick to complete the line. In my opinion, either would work, both would be overkill. To get the most out of Crosby, it’d be best to use the capable, productive winger he knows and can add grit to a lineup of forwards.
Then again, as an American, maybe I’d just keep my mouth shut if Hockey Canada asks for advice. For a country that could probably ice 2 teams worth of talent and medal, the last thing they need is the possibility to take their strongest chance of what reasons to be their best chance of success.