After a Stanley Cup victory this past summer, the Pittsburgh Penguins are off to a solid 10-3-2 start to the 2016-2017 campaign. With a glut of young talent like Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson, the Penguins are cultivating the next generation of playmakers and scorers.
Even more critical in the current NHL is grit—a whole lunch pail of it. Though he’s been shuffling in and out of the lineup, forward Tom Kuhnhackl presents the Penguins with a blue-collar promise, an insurance policy for the future of their physicality. At 24 years young and in his 2nd season with the Pens, here are the attributes and roles he could play in the near future if he sticks with the club.
Eventual Replacement for Chris Kunitz
Even at 37, Kunitz can still lay the body on opponents and work the puck in the dirty areas along the boards. However, Father Time will eventually untie Kunitz’s skates and escort him toward the runway and into retirement.
Who will be there in his place to set the physical tone, grapple for pucks in the corners, and get in on the forecheck? None other than Tom Kuhnhackl. He may not necessarily play on a top line in Kunitz’s stead, but he can forecheck and throw his weight around, wearing down opponents with his physicality.
Additionally, Kuhnhackl has no reservations about blocking shots and not only has the will, but also the effectiveness. His offensive game has a hidden finesse as well. He skates well and his hands are deceptively soft, allowing him to create opportunities off the rush.
Whenever Kunitz’s bell tolls, Kuhnhackl has the opportunity to excel in the unsung areas that don’t make it to the stat sheet but ensure that the puck keeps heading north in all three zones.
Penalty Kill Regular
As mentioned before, his shot blocking ability serves him admirably when the team goes shorthanded. At 6’2 and mobile, he can scramble to cover shots originating from the point and put in the work in the trenches to clear the puck. There are times when he seems to become a human riot shield, allowing pucks to ding and dent him without a second though, and for a goalie, that’s priceless.
Last year, he often was paired with veteran Matt Cullen, and together, they often turned the tide and would get themselves shorthanded opportunities, even netting a few shorthanded goals.
While not playing as consistent a role on the penalty kill this year, the season hasn’t even reached the twenty game mark. If he strings a healthy amount of starts together, we could see him develop into a trustworthy wedge on the penalty kill, similar to a Nick Bonino mold.
Net-Front Powerplay Presence
With his size and frame, Kuhnhackl has the characteristics and style to screen goalies and tip pucks in. Patric Hornqvist is the undisputed resident plague to goalies on the first powerplay unit, but the second unit could use Kuhnhackl’s presence.
In fact, he would do well to emulate Hornquivst’s hair-trigger motor, dogged nose for the forecheck, and patience in taking cross checks so he can get in front of the net. One day, I can imagine Kuhnhackl deflecting a Sidney Crosby snapshot, Phil Kessel cross-ice pass, or Evgeni Malkin slap shot into the net at PPG Paints Arena.
If he can play with consistency, Kuhnhackl could eventually fulfill these roles for Mike Sullivan. Nevertheless, he currently contributes from the fourth line. Whether it’s offering himself as cannon fodder to block a shot or dig in on the forechekc, he’s demonstrated an affinity for these future roles. Hopefully he can continue to augment his development and gain a larger slice of ice time, fulfilling the hopes of fans and coaches alike.
Kevin Cochrane is a writer, college student, and founder of Town Crier. Like what you read? Follow him on Twitter at RunFree_KC, friend him on Facebook under “Kevin Cochrane,” or click the follow button at the bottom of the page to get Town Crier’s latest updates. Want to read more? Visit his blog restandrefuge.wordpress.com which offers perspectives from a Christian trying to navigate the culture around him. You can contact him with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org