Predators Reaping Rewards of Luke Kunin Trade

Not every player gets to be the overtime hero, and doing it in double overtime is special. But when that double-overtime win comes on the heels of another double-overtime win, then the legend starts to grow. After a quiet regular season, Luke Kunin’s playoff heroics for the Nashville Predators in Game 4 has made him a household name.

Until Sunday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Kunin had been flying under the radar on his new team. But he is starting to shine in the Predators’ first-round series, which is exactly what the team needs and what they were looking for when they acquired the versatile young forward.

Predators Swap Bonino for Kunin

After losing in the play-in round in the 2020 Playoff bubble, the Predators needed a shakeup, and on October 7 (the second day of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft), Kunin was acquired from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Nick Bonino (a few picks were also involved in the deal).

Nick Bonino Minnesota Wild Philipp Grubauer Colorado Avalanche
Former Nashville Predator and current Minnesota Wild centre Nick Bonino, screening Philipp Grubauer of the Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

As the younger asset, it was worth including some extra picks to acquire Kunin, even though he was a restricted free agent at the time and the figure for his next contract wasn’t set yet. His offensive punch and positional versatility were a good fit on the Predators, who didn’t want to promise Bonino the same amount of ice time in 2020-21; he has been a disappointment for the Wild, putting up a career-worst 41% Corsi for in 55 games this season. Nashville needed a young winger more than an aging center, as even Matt Duchene played on the wing for most of the season.

Kunin in the Regular Season

Meanwhile, Kunin managed a 40-point pace in a secondary role for the Wild in 2019-20 and matched that pace with the Predators despite a slow start as he adjusted to the team. The 23-year-old took off in the second half, scoring 14 of his 19 points in the last 21 games, a 55-point pace over a full season. He also upped his hits from one per game last season to over two per game in 2020-21. That may be partly due to the retrieval game that Nashville plays and that Kunin has increased offensive responsibility in Nashville with 53% of his starts in the offensive zone compared to 48% with the Wild. 

Luke Kunin Minnesota Wild
Luke Kunin, Former Minnesota Wild Forward (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

For most of the season, Kunin played in the top-nine, and almost half of his even-strength ice time was on Mikhael Granlund’s wing with Calle Jarnkrok on the other side. In the playoffs, he has kept his spot on Granlund’s wing, with Eeli Tolvanen as the team’s second line. Granlund is a likely sought-after unrestricted free agent this offseason, so next season’s lineup could look very different. But Kunin has shown that he deserves a spot on one of the top-two lines regardless of who plays center.

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With increased ice time and regular power-play minutes with Tolvanen, we might see some of Kunin’s untapped offensive potential. Average-sized forwards tend to break out offensively around the 200-game mark, and Kunin should hit that part way through next season. Acquiring him from Minnesota for Bonino and a couple of draft picks seems more and more like a shrewd move by general manager David Poile.

A Playoff Breakout

In Nashville’s first two games of the playoffs (both losses), Kunin played a combined 21 minutes of ice time. In Games 3 and 4, he played 30 minutes in regulation and over 50 minutes total. He is showing the coaching staff that he deserves to be played more, and the team is winning when he is. Keep an eye on him in Game 5; he could be the x-factor.

Luke Kunin Nashville Predators
Luke Kunin, Nashville Predators (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Kunin has one more season on his contract at a bargain $2.2 million cap hit before he earns a fair raise. Had he been a free agent this summer, he would have been projected to earn $3.5 million against the cap, which would make sense on a medium-term deal. Next season, if he continues to develop, he could be looking at upwards of a $4.5 million cap hit. Poile would do well to try and sign Kunin to an extension sooner rather than later, especially if he continues to be a playoff hero.