Does the “Kunitz Effect” Have Broader Value?

Evaluating prospects before they’re drafted is tricky business. It’s nearly impossible to know how a guy’s game is going to translate to the NHL, or predict how he will progress as he develops. I was musing over this earlier in the week when looking at Halifax Mooseheads forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who jumped from 22nd at midterm to 13th in NHL Central Scouting’s final draft rankings. Ehlers finished the QMJHL regular season with 104 points and the most PPG in the CHL, making him look like a very attractive draft option, but he also experienced a dramatic spike in production when he began playing with Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jonathan Drouin. Ehlers is a skilled player in his own right, albeit smaller than many teams may like at 5’11” and 162. But there has been questioning all year as to whether he is a “product of” Drouin, or if he could’ve achieved this kind of year with another center.

I took my questioning in a slightly different direction and asked, could Drouin have achieved the 108 point year he did with a different winger? No one in their right minds would deny that Drouin is an elite player, but his situation with Ehlers reminds me in an abstract way of Chris Kunitz’s play with Sidney Crosby – that is to say, there are some players out there who, while not being showstoppingly good on their own, have the innate capability to be successful with, and successfully influence, elite players. Kunitz has managed to accomplish this with both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but he garnered more attention for it this year because of his candidacy and then selection to the Canadian Olympic team, hence my dubbing it the “Kunitz Effect”. Kunitz, though, is far from the only example around the NHL.

The “Kunitz Effect” Elsewhere

During his tenure with the Ducks this season, Dustin Penner reunited with former linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and it worked almost right away. Penner is the kind of player Getzlaf and Perry need on their line; he’s not one to get fancy, but he’ll get to the net and look for where they need him to be. Penner even had a 4 point night (1G, 3A) in a game against Buffalo in November. But it wasn’t only Penner’s stats that improved; during their time together, Getzlaf and Perry also saw their GF% (goals on the ice for divided by goals on the ice against) improve while playing with Penner.

Studying this information made me wonder why, after the Capitals acquired him at the trade deadline, Penner wasn’t at least tested on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom. He could’ve served a very similar purpose as he had with Getzlaf and Perry, driving to the net or finding the holes Ovechkin and Backstrom needed him to fill. Perhaps this move could’ve improved the Capitals’ scoring. Adam Oates didn’t appear to see it that way.

Identifying this kind of player can be incredibly beneficial to a team, however. Think of Crosby with Kunitz, John Tavares with Matt Moulson (pre-Vanek trade, obviously), or Patrice Bergeron with Brad Marchand. It could be valuable for a team to recognize a player that may not be elite on his own, but raises his own level of play when used alongside an elite teammate, and can even improve that teammate’s level of play.

Finding a Potential Kunitz

The question, then, becomes “How do we find this player?” Unfortunately, I have yet to discover a foolproof method for figuring out which players have “the Kunitz effect”, that ability to keep up with and help drive the play of stars. Not everyone has the mindset, or indeed the skill set, to play with those guys effectively, but figuring out who does – right now, anyway – seems to be trial and error and evaluating past performance with and without elite players.

What I do know is that for someone to fall into this category, the performance being evaluated can’t come from a small sample size. It needs to be a repeatable skill set. Kunitz has had success with both Crosby and Malkin in large sample sizes; Matt Moulson had three consecutive 30 goal seasons starting in 2009-2010, when he began playing the majority of his time with John Tavares.

We can’t predict what Nikolaj Ehlers is going to look like in the NHL, and we don’t know what he looks like in a larger sample size without Drouin. What we do know is that he’s had success with someone who is going to be a dominant player in the NHL, and because of that, he’s worth keeping an eye on in the future. The ability to play well with elite players is something to look for in draft prospects, but should also be considered in potential trades and free agent signings. In the salary cap world, identifying and utilizing these players can provide an important service to a team, and can do it without the high price tag of an actual superstar.