After agreeing to a one-year $2 million contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 1, 2017, four-time Stanley Cup winner Chris Kunitz effectively ended his tenure in Pittsburgh. He listed reasons like “change is good” and “sometimes when you’re (the team) so close, everybody gets kind of complacent,” while also drawing many similarities between the Lightning and the Penguins styles of play — rightfully so.
But at a small price of just $2 million, does Jim Rutherford’s decision to let Kunitz, a three-time Cup winner with the Penguins’ organization, and a guy with a history of being a tough forechecker, team leader, and excellent line mate and friend to Sidney Crosby, walk last summer prove to be one of his better judgements? With the offseason in full swing, we sometimes pass the time reflecting back on seasons past, so I decided to break it down.
At the time, Rutherford may have still been banking on Matt Cullen opting to stay in Pittsburgh and return to the Penguins’ roster, rather than packing up and moving back home to Minnesota to join the Wild. Rutherford was also trying to save money to fill the third and fourth-line center debacle (which he eventually did with flying colors), which may have added to his choice to not want to pay Kunitz $1-2 million.
I think the decision lied in whether or not Kunitz was worth being paid that much to be used somewhere on the bottom-six. Considering the depth struggles the Penguins faced in this year’s playoffs due to untimely injuries, coupled with the constant line combination changes by Mike Sullivan, many people argued that his style of play would’ve been very useful against the tough series between the Flyers and Capitals, but it’s impossible to predict these sorts of things. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Ending up with a player like Dominik Simon on the same line with Crosby makes folks quick to get angry and frustrated about it as well, but you can’t expect this was going to happen. No one saw Jake Guentzel taking over playoff series in the first year of his NHL career, but he did. Simon had that same opportunity and fell flat. Hockey is weird and unpredictable. It happens.
Personally, the biggest thing that turned off Rutherford from offering a Kunitz contract was the terms he was asking for. The 38-year-old (!) wanted two years, and the Penguins probably only wanted him at the desired price for one against the cap. Even though it hurt seeing him go to a Cup contender the same year the Penguins were trying for the first three-peat in the salary cup era, it ultimately was the right move.
It might also lessen the blow when you consider Kunitz hasn’t recorded a single point in 14 playoff games so far. Yes, his regular season numbers (13 goals, 16 assists) would’ve been great to have on the third or fourth line, and you can obviously point out that potentially being on a line with 87 would’ve helped, but the fit just wasn’t right.
You could argue this until you’re blue in the face, but Rutherford is a guy who considers all aspects of a contract and (usually) makes the correct decision. I know it’s easy to fall into the “Bill Cowher Method” of reacting with a knee-jerk responses at the end of a perceived “losing” season that didn’t end with a celebration with Lord Stanley, but Rutherford knows his stuff. The Penguins want to move in the direction of younger and fresher. It’s done. It’s over with. It’s time to move on.
And now we get to see Kunitz attempt to win his third Stanley Cup in a row and fifth of his career. He’s the only active NHL player with four championships to his name, so it would truly be something special.
We also get to see him doing spectacular things like this:
Chris Kunitz rips Tom Wilson's helmet off in a very painful manner. Ouch. pic.twitter.com/ty9WPAvmm6— Ian Oland (@ianoland) May 12, 2018