Chris Kunitz didn’t see this one coming.
“I didn’t even think myself that the NHL was something that could be realistic until I signed out of college,” Kunitz told ESPN.com. “I played Tier 2 junior; nobody very often gets drafted out of the SJHL.”
Based on those comments, neither did anyone else. And yet, here we are: an undrafted player from Ferris State University is lighting the lamp as a winger playing on the same line as the world’s most talented hockey player.
After digesting that mouthful, consider that Kunitz isn’t the only undrafted Pittsburgh Penguins forward exceeding all expectations. Pascal Dupuis played four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before being signed as a free agent. Once again: an undrafted winger is playing the wing for Sidney Crosby.
The Hockey News describes Dupuis as “versatile enough to play on either side of center, and [he] can also fill out a scoring line.”
Moving on to Kunitz’s description: “Lacks high-end goal-scoring acumen, mainly because he passes up way too many shots.”
Wait. That doesn’t sound right. Putting up 39 points through 28 games – including 18 goals – qualifies as lacking “high-end goal-scoring acumen”? Might need to do a double-take on that one.
#Pens Chris Kunitz (17 goals in 26 games) is shooting 28.8% this year. His career average is 12.2%
— Mike Colligan (@MikeColligan) March 11, 2013
Some believe Kunitz’s success this season is simply a result of playing on the same team as Crosby, James Neal, and Evgeni Malkin. Really, Kunitz has come by his accomplishments honestly.
“The way [Kunitz is] firing the puck right now, he makes all of us look good by putting the puck in the back of the net,” Crosby said prior to a recent Bruins-Penguins matchup.
Adam Gretz of CBS Eye on Hockey pointed out that much of Kunitz’s success can be found in where the Pens winger has been shooting from.
“Last season, [Kunitz’s] average shot on goal came from 27 feet away from the net, with his average goal being scored from 24.2 feet,” Gretz wrote. “This season his average shot – before [March 7] – has been 28.2 feet from the net with his average goal coming from 26 feet away.”
What this tells us, as Gretz also points out, is that Kunitz is no longer just the guy who goes to the front of the net and bangs in trash. Kunitz has moved outward, and is finding himself burying more pucks from the slot.
“He’s not a flashy payer, not a guy that goes end to end and beat guys one on one,” Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma said of Kunitz’s game. “It’s straight lines, simple plays, finding the back of the net. We’re going to keep letting him do that.”
With Kunitz currently sitting in the top three among league goals, points, and plus-minus leaders, that might not be a bad idea.
In a similar fashion, Dupuis has quietly emerged as a reliable part of the National Hockey League’s best offense.
The 33-year-old Dupuis isn’t having the Cinderella season Kunitz is living, but the former Cleveland Lumberjack has shown his value on a team filled with young stars.
Once thought of by many as a typical journeyman making the rounds though the league, Dupuis has found a home in Pittsburgh. With this being the final year of his $3 million, two-year contract with the Penguins, Dupuis won’t have to worry much about finding a new one for next season. It’s even possible a raise may be in the works.
Dupuis was considered a toss-in in the deal that saw himself and Marian Hossa move from Atlanta to the Penguins. Five years later, both Dupuis and Hossa are having great seasons. But it’s the throw-in who remains in Pittsburgh.
The chemistry between Crosby, Dupuis, and Kunitz was apparent in Thursday night’s victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Midway through the third period, Kunitz chased a shoot-in hard into the corner. Kunitz came away with the puck and proceeded to dish it to Crosby. The superstar center then sent a spinning pass over to Dupuis, who was wide open in front of the Leafs cage, where he finished the play off with his first goal of the night. It was just one of many examples this season of a couple of players who were never drafted by an NHL club hooking up with a former first overall pick.
The tales of Kunitz and Dupuis (which, by the way, sounds like a great name for a series of mystery novels) have provided inspiration for young athletes who struggle to make the cut. At one point they were two aspiring pros who weren’t quite talented enough to be drafted into the NHL. Now, they’re essentially sidekicks of the league’s superhero.
Going undrafted doesn’t mean as much as it used to.
David O’Connor is a managing editor with the Sunbelt Hockey Journal. His writing has been on the Los Angeles Times’ website, among other places. O’Connor also does some scouting work for the local Junior B hockey club. Please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.