The Pittsburgh Penguins have been hurting as of late. Their injured reserve list over the past few months has included enough core players to make any fan wince. Recent injuries have included those to Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Carl Hagelin. Right now, the Penguins are missing defensemen Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz, both significant losses as they are two defensemen who’ve been taking a lot of ice time this season. The Penguins have also lost two forwards, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, who prior to their injuries had been flanking Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ first line.
The absences of Rust and Sheary have created opportunities for other forwards lower down in the lineup. One player who rose up to help fill these gaps is Jake Guentzel, who was called up from the Penguins’ minor-league affiliate and is now getting the chance to play alongside Crosby. Another player who is being given a chance by this stripped-down roster is Tom Kuhnhackl.
Kuhnhackl’s Return to the Ice
Kuhnhackl’s time on the regular roster has fluctuated so far this season. He recently had a long string of games he didn’t even dress for; he didn’t play at all between Dec. 17 and Jan. 12. Kuhnhackl, who before Sunday’s matchup against the Detroit Red Wings had only two goals on the season, appeared to have become a nonessential part of the roster.
But perhaps other players’ misfortunes are a boon for Kuhnhackl. With the current number of injuries on the Penguins roster, head coach Mike Sullivan is forced to see how far down the depth on his team goes. That includes bringing Kuhnhackl back into the regular rotation. He has been averaging about 10 minutes on the ice per game since he returned to the roster on Jan. 12.
Since rejoining the roster a little over a month ago, Kuhnhackl has registered one assist and one goal. (Fun fact: the goal was shorthanded, which means that three of Kuhnhackl’s eight total goals with the Penguins have been scored on the penalty kill.) He’s playing on the Penguins’ fourth line alongside Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr. In the Penguins’ last game, a 5-2 loss to Detroit in which Kuhnhackl scored his third goal of the year, Kuhnhackl was the only Penguin named as one of the game’s three stars. So far, Kuhnhackl is putting up a solid performance for the Penguins. He has a positive plus-minus on the season. Although he’s not a top producer, he’s a solid depth option for the fourth line.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 19, 2017
On the Penalty Kill
Kuhnhackl’s history of shorthanded scoring speaks well to his performance on the penalty kill, an area in which the Penguins have been struggling this season. It’s interesting that the Penguins are choosing to start Kuhnhackl on their penalty kill, given that they’d kept him off the roster for almost a month and that their penalty kill is one of their weaker areas as a team; although it’s improved over the past few months, it’s still ranked in the bottom third of the league.
Having an offensively-minded penalty killer could prove to be a much-needed advantage for the Penguins, as Kuhnhackl showed in Sunday’s game against Detroit. In addition to his one shorthanded goal, he made another shorthanded attempt that was very nearly successful. The Penguins work well with an offensive-minded penalty kill; for instance, when killing a 5-on-3 in Sunday’s game, they decided to keep two forwards on the ice. One of them was Kuhnhackl. If Kuhnhackl improves the Penguins’ penalty kill, that is a very good incentive to keep him on the roster.
Kuhnhackl, like Rust and Scott Wilson, was signed on at the end of last season to a two-year contract extension. The Penguins have certainly been able to take advantage of players like these three with their low cap hits so far this season (get well soon, Sheary.) Kuhnhackl already has the contract; now, with the current bout of injuries, is his chance to prove that he deserves ice time as well.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.