Penguins notebook: Kunitz finding ways to chip in despite scoring slump
While the Penguins were scoring boatloads of goals in early December, averaging more than five per game in the first two weeks of the month, one forward wasn't invited to the party.
Going into Tuesday night's matchup with the New York Rangers, Chris Kunitz had no goals and one assist in his previous eight games.
A veteran of 839 NHL games, Kunitz is past the point of weeping in his locker stall every time a scoring slump hits. Still, he admits he would like to get in on the high-scoring action.
“For sure, you want to be part of it. You want to be out there contributing,” Kunitz said. “Obviously, we have different things we're doing out there, but when the team is going that well, you want to get your offensive production in too. That being said, you don't mind when your team's winning also.”
While he's not scoring, Kunitz can hang his hat on the fact he continues to lead the team in hits and is a positive player in the most commonly used shot-based metrics.
“He obviously has a high expectation of himself. Our coaching staff knows his production will follow,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He's a guy that doesn't have to show up on the scoresheet, and he still has an influence on helping us win. He's a great momentum guy. He's an energy guy. I think he plays bigger than he is, and he helps the lines that he's on generate offense.”
New guy on the blue line
Looking to bolster their organizational depth on the blue line, the Penguins added five minor league free agent defensemen within a few hours of the signing period opening last July 1.
As a result, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has the best defense in the AHL by nearly a half-goal, giving up 2.04 per game, and is off to a 19-5-3 start. It also created a situation where there was intense competition among Baby Pens defensemen for promotions.
Steve Oleksy, David Warsofsky and Derrick Pouliot got the call at various points. Chad Ruhwedel, a 26-year-old California native, was the latest winner, making his Penguins debut Tuesday night.
“The ‘D' corps in Wilkes is really talented,” Ruhwedel said. “I think it's shown down there. We've been playing really well. I think any one of us could get the call at any time, and we all know that, so it makes practices interesting. Games are also a time to show yourself. I think everybody gets that. Everybody's itching for their shot.”
Ruhwedel got his shot because he's an excellent skater with strong puck-moving credentials.
“His skill sets, I think, lend to the style of play that we're trying to play, and that's a speed game,” Sullivan said.
Pouliot is in an interesting spot as he gets his first extended playing time of the season.
He has yet to establish himself as a regular NHL player, so it's important for him to play a simple, mistake-free game to earn the trust of his coaches.
On the other hand, with Kris Letang and Trevor Daley out with injuries, the Penguins could use some offensive punch on the blue line, and that's something that definitely is part of Pouliot's game.
Ultimately, it's a tough tightrope to walk for the 22-year-old from Saskatchewan.
“Part of it is just not trying to force it,” Pouliot said. “If it's there, make the play or try to make the play, but don't try and create something out of nothing.”