For years Chris Kunitz has faithfully rode shotgun with Sidney Crosby. Though he hasn't been the biggest, strongest, fastest or most skilled, Kunitz has been a terrific linemate for Crosby. He's been tenacious along the boards, a ferocious forechecker, an under-rated passer and had the hands enough to convert scoring chances into goals. From 2010/11 - 2013/14 Kunitz scored 229 points, third most of any Penguin (behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). And Kunitz's 106 goals were best on the team for that those 4 seasons, not bad for a player most perceive as a passenger.
Kunitz parlayed that success into big things. A three year contract extension signed in 2013 to take him through the 2016-17 season. A spot on the 2014 Gold medal winning Canadian Olympic team (highlighted by a dagger goal).
Through the first 20 games in 2014-15, everything was looking gravy too, until December 2nd when Kunitz broke his foot. In fact, there was a startling discrepancy for Kunitz before he got hurt, and then afterwards.
|Games||Goals||Assists||Points||PP Goals||PP Assists||Shots/game||+/-|
The above isn't a misprint: Chris Kunitz only scored 4 even strength goals in his final 56 games of the year (playoffs included) after returning from the broken foot.
Needless to say, the Penguins will need a lot more than that output at 5v5, especially now that they have added Phil Kessel, a player who doubtlessly factors in to the top power play. Add him to Crosby, Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Kunitz's standard spot on the top PP is no longer really there.
Can the Penguins still hope for Kunitz as a top-6 forward? If he has to slot in for the third line with Brandon Sutter and Pascal Dupuis, that's probably not a terrible thing for that line. But of more importance is the Penguins top-6. Kessel and Hornqvist are on the right, in some order. Crosby and Malkin are no-doubters up the middle. David Perron will take one LW spot, leaving a hole on the other.
If it's Kunitz (and an effective/productive player) that's a huge boost to the Penguins. If it's not, Pittsburgh has questions. Can it be Sergei Plotnikov? Or would it have to be an out-of-position Dupuis or even Beau Bennett?
Those are questions the Penguins really better off not answering, if they don't have to. Kunitz turns 36 in September, but if he can dutifully fill a top-6 role, even as a useful, defensive minded 3rd wheel to Crosby-Kessel, that opens up Perron-Malkin-Hornqvist to give the Penguins a 2nd 1st line.
The Pens best-case scenario is Kunitz can be revert to before he broke his foot and offer up decent production as well as a defensive and forechecking presence to the top-6. That would make the team the most dangerous and give the team a deadly top two lines. If so, everything is gravy. If not, the Penguins endless search to find enough skill wingers for Crosby and Malkin will need to be addressed again at the 2016 trade deadline, and hasn't ended even with the addition of Phil Kessel.