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Rejection spurred Pens' Kunitz

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Three weeks ago, the Penguins had to surrender a valuable asset in order to obtain winger Chris Kunitz from the Anaheim Ducks.

Three years ago, the Atlanta Thrashers acquired Kunitz for nothing.

The Ducks had placed Kunitz — coming off a no-goal, 21-game NHL debut a year earlier — on waivers early in the 2005-06 season.

The Thrashers didn't even keep him around for the proverbial cup of coffee. More like a shot of espresso. Kunitz was back on the waiver wire after two games, reclaimed by Anaheim and sent to the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League.

Not exactly a confidence-building experience for a 26-year-old prospect.

Hit parade
NHL hits leaders among left wingers, prior to Wednesday's games:
Player Team Hits
Dustin Brown Kings 242
Matt Cooke Penguins 239
Milan Lucic Bruins 233
Alex Ovechkin Capitals 222
Chris Kunitz Penguins 183

Definitely a motivating one.

Then-Ducks general manager Brian Burke later said Kunitz probably needed a reminder that nobody is guaranteed an NHL career.

Kunitz didn't disagree. He just wondered at the time if he might have to put his business marketing degree to use.

"You start thinking, is hockey for me• What am I supposed to do?" Kunitz recalled Tuesday night, after scoring his sixth goal in 10 games with the resurgent Penguins. "I thought I had a good chance of making it with Anaheim. Then you go to another team, and they don't want you, either.

"A lot of thoughts were going through my head."

Luckily for Kunitz, a guardian angel of sorts greeted him in Portland, Maine. It was Portland's first-year coach, Kevin Dineen, who had crafted a long and decorated NHL career out of a modest frame and an oversized heart — just as Kunitz would do in subsequent years.

Kunitz is an inch taller than the 5-foot-11 Dineen, who retired as one of five players in NHL history to rack up more than 350 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. He captained the Carolina Hurricanes for three seasons.

Dineen's message to Kunitz was simple.

"He said, 'Just go out and play, and do your thing, and good things will happen,' " Kunitz recalled.

Dineen, who still coaches Portland, told Kunitz that the adversity could work to his advantage.

"I said to him, 'What you show now is what other people will see,'" Dineen said Wednesday. "I just really believed in him as a player. He burst right out here with so much enthusiasm and had an impact on our team in a very short time. Any coach would love to have him in the lineup."

Kunitz spent only five games with Portland. He rejoined the Ducks, found a niche playing with highly skilled players such as Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald and launched what has become a Dineen-like career, built on above-average skill and off-the-charts desire. He also has given the Penguins a much-needed net presence on their power play.

In the summer of 2007, the Ducks signed Kunitz to a four-year, $14.9 million contract extension. Not bad for a kid who had no delusions of becoming a millionaire, or of skating next to a superstar such as Sidney Crosby, when he played junior hockey for the Melville Millionaires in his native Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

Kunitz was just looking for a chance to play hockey in the United States He found it at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich.

That is where NHL teams took note of Kunitz, whose fabulous college career culminated with a 79-point senior season. Current Penguins assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher was a Ducks personnel evaluator at the time. Kunitz led Ferris State to within a game of the Frozen Four.

"He almost took a very ordinary team all the way," Ducks assistant general manager Dave McNab recalled yesterday. "They beat North Dakota, which had (current New Jersey Devils players) Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and lot of other guys, and they might have beaten Minnesota the next night, but Chris left that game with a charley horse after he scored twice in the first period."

McNab had established a relationship with Kunitz, so Anaheim owned the inside track when Kunitz finished his college career and became available to any team as a free agent.

"He was a huge commodity," McNab said. "In my experience, of all the college free agents ever signed, he might have been the biggest get. You could say getting him was the equivalent of getting a top-10 player in the first round of the draft."

Three years later, however, Kunitz still hadn't cracked the Ducks' lineup.

The Ducks returned from the lockout of 2004-05 with a new coaching staff and a new GM in Burke. Kunitz was waived. McNab still can't explain why, though he did say, "We all kick ourselves later for putting certain players on waivers."

Credit the Ducks for recognizing their mistake and reclaiming Kunitz. He helped them win a Stanley Cup in 2007, became an alternate captain, and on Feb. 26 was packaged to the Penguins, along with prospect Eric Tangradi, for what the Ducks hope will be an elite offensive defenseman in Ryan Whitney.

Rest assured, the Penguins are thrilled with the deal thus far.




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