Much of the talk surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins over the past two weeks has been regarding trade possibilities at the NHL Draft and the team’s effort to retain pending free agent Pascal Dupuis.
There wasn’t much buzz about Chris Kunitz, probably because the versatile winger still had a year left on his contract with the Penguins. Nevertheless, general manager Ray Shero clearly had No. 14’s long-term future on his priority list, as the team announced a three-year contract extension for Kunitz on Thursday morning.
The extension, which will take effect in the 2014-15 season and last through 2017, will take the 33-year-old Kunitz through his age-37 season. Despite being at a career stage that is usually accompanied by decreased production, Kunitz enjoyed another banner year while playing alongside Sidney Crosby.
The native of Saskatchewan and product of the American college system (Ferris State University) was second on the Penguins in points this year, with 52 in 48 games. Kunitz’ 22 goals were first on the team, and he ranked among the NHL’s top-five scorers until Crosby missed the final month of the season with a broken jaw. Kunitz finished seventh on the league scoring list.
Kunitz’ obvious chemistry with Crosby makes him uniquely valuable to the Penguins. A dogged puck-retriever and forechecker, Kunitz has provided consistent work ethic and straight-line hockey since arriving via trade from Anaheim in March 2009. The 6-foot left-handed shooter also played well alongside Evgeni Malkin in 2011-12, further displaying his value with a career-high 61 points.
The Penguins will pay Kunitz $3.85 million per season once the extension kicks in, just a $125,000 raise over the average annual value of his current deal. The relative bargain likely stems from two factors: 1) Kunitz’ age, and 2) a tacit acknowledgement that he wouldn’t produce nearly as much on other teams.
Kunitz’ desire to play for a perennial contender also had to play a role in the extension. The Penguins can hope Dupuis will feel similarly to his oft-linemate, although the prospect of a last crack at free agency has to be appealing for the 34-year-old.
It could still be a summer of upheaval for the Penguins, but with coach Dan Bylsma, Malkin and now Kunitz all signed to new deals, Shero and Co. are doing all they can to keep as many organizational pillars standing as possible.