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The Penguins should just say no to Chris Kunitz in 2018

The time has come and gone for Kunitz’s usefulness.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Nashville Predators at Pittsburgh Penguins Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman announced as part of his remarks that the Lightning weren’t interested in bringing back veteran forward Chris Kunitz next season.

The dots are already being connected for a potential return, as covered here last week, with Kunitz being open to re-joining the Penguins.

Jason Mackey of the PG has info that the interest is reciprocated by the team, assuming they can figure out salary cap considerations.

The Penguins do indeed have legitimate interest in bringing back former left wing Chris Kunitz, but anything they might do is contingent on creating additional salary-cap space, a source told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday afternoon.

This should be a scary proposition. Kunitz turns 39-years-old before the 2018-19 season starts. Currently, there’s only one forward older than him under contract in the whole league (Patrick Marleau in Toronto). Though, presumably Joe Thornton and Jason Chimera could be in the mix too if their playing careers continue.

It’s true that “age is but a number,” however it’s also true that the NHL is increasingly more and more a younger man’s game. The game gets faster every season — so it seems. The Penguins are a team that’s given lip service towards trying to regain more team speed, an important aspect to their Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017. Surely adding Kunitz in 2018 doesn’t help that.

Part of the refrain for getting Kunitz would be: A) he would likely be signed for cheap and B) it could be in a fourth line only role.

As far as Point A goes, this is probably true. The team that knows Kunitz the best right now, Tampa, doesn’t want him back. That speaks volumes about where his value is right now. He would likely be for cheap. Pittsburgh only has about $9 million in cap space, and the majority of that will be eaten up by signing restricted free agents Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, and Jamie Oleksiak.

For Point B, that Kunitz could be helpful in a fourth line role, I remain less than convinced that is where he would stay. Chris Kunitz is like a security blanket for NHL coaches. Just look at his last playoff run as a Penguin. Despite only scoring two goals in 20 games (granted one a very, very, very important goal, credit where it’s due) Kunitz still played 173 minutes with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin out of 261 total even-strength minutes played. Give a coach Kunitz, and he’s going to find his way on those lines.

Further, it would block the spot of a youngster. Assuming a top-nine (in whatever line combos or variation you want) of:

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist

Carl Hagelin - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel

Conor Sheary - Derick Brassard - Bryan Rust

Adding Kunitz as a fourth line winger means one of Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese is out of the top-12 forwards on the team. Could the team still trade a Hagelin/Sheary/Rust type to open up room? Perhaps but that almost certainly makes the Penguins less deep and more reliant on what would be probably the second or third oldest forward in the game, who is coming off a zero goal, one assist 17-game playoff run.

The memory of Kunitz scoring 35 goals and 68 points five seasons ago runs strong, but that Chris Kunitz isn’t the one remaining today. The Pens should commit to players like Aston-Reese and Sprong and move on from the past.