Published on September 5th, 2012 | by James Conley0
Penguins 2013 Season Preview Part II: Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke, Brandon Sutter
When the Pittsburgh Penguins are winning, it’s usually because they’re scoring.
Last season, Penguins skaters combined to score 273 goals and 743 points and drew more than one comparison to the high-flying offenses of the early-to-mid ’90s. Pittsburgh’s forwards were responsible for 590 of those 743 points, or 79 percent of the league’s most productive offense.
A number of players, even veterans, posted the finest offensive numbers of their careers. Despite missing Sidney Crosby for 60 games and offensive threats Jordan Staal and Kris Letang for a combined 51 contests, Pittsburgh still finished with the most goals in the NHL and the league’s 5th-best power play at 19.7 percent.
Though Staal has departed for Carolina, a relatively healthy season from the team’s big names (something not seen in the two years of CONSOL Energy Center’s existence) could produce the highest-scoring offense of the post-Mario Penguins.
Chris Kunitz, LW
2011: 82 GP // 26 G // 35 A // plus-16 // 49 PIM // 180 Hits // 6 PPG // 12 PPA // 3 GWG // 230 SOG // .74 PPG
Since his arrival in Pittsburgh at the 2009 trade deadline, Kunitz was the lone constant on Crosby’s wings through two-plus seasons. When Crosby began last year on LTIR, Kunitz was floated through the lineup, flanking Staal while James Neal and Steve Sullivan played regular minutes with Evgeni Malkin.
Sullivan was eventually bumped to Staal’s line and Kunitz was returned to first line duties. The chemistry with Malkin and Neal was immediate.
Kunitz is an undrafted North American who skates perfectly vertically from zone to zone and is a dogged forechecker once on the offensive. It’s no surprise that he fits well with head coach Dan Bylsma’s game plan. What was most surprising was how well he clicked with Malkin and Neal.
Though Kunitz’s career-best 26 goals and 35 assists were dwarfed by his linemates’ combined 190 points, his role with the unit was indispensable. The line’s individual point totals were bolstered by their complementary styles of play—Kunitz’ forechecking, Malkin’s playmaking and Neal as the sniper.
It’s unsure whether the line will stick together as permanently as last season with Crosby back in the fold. If Crosby is unable to bolster the numbers of whichever grinder is elevated to his wing, the top-six could be an exercise in line-matching for some time.
Kunitz’s role will be defined no matter who centers him. The 32 year old begins the first of a two-year contract in ’12-13 at $3.725 million per year. If Kunitz is able to play all 82 games as he did a season ago, the Penguins will get full value for a tenacious, versatile top-six winger—no matter how many goals he nullifies by being tenacious and versatile deep in the blue paint.
Matt Cooke, LW
2011: 82 GP // 19 G // 19 A // plus-5 // 44 PIM // 160 Hits // 1 PPG // 5 PPA // 4 GWG // 147 SOG // .46 PPG
Cooke’s 2012 year began as a quest to fulfill the stories of his offseason reconciliation. The reigning dirtiest player in the league entered last year on the heels of a 17-game suspension for elbowing NYR’s Ryan McDonagh and finished by setting career-highs in goals and a career-low PIM total while managing to stay out of the crosshairs of NHL discipline.
Not bad work for a 13-year veteran who wasn’t supposed to be able to drastically alter his game.
Like so many of his teammates, Cooke had an excellent offensive season. The former agitator scored a career-best 19 goals and came within four points of his single-season personal best (42 in 2002-03). He skated on a line with Crosby and Tyler Kennedy over the final 20 games of the season and used the fortunate circumstances to his benefit. Cooke finished a goal shy of becoming the sixth Penguin to score 20 or more goals last season. His renewed offensive touch rewarded a management group which threatened to cut Cooke from the team if he didn’t clean up his play.
Which, of course, was the real story.
After compiling more than 100 PIM in each of his first three seasons with the Penguins (336 total in 222 RS games), Cooke dropped to 44 PIM in 82 games played. The .54 PIM/game average was the lowest of any season in his career, and 44 total PIM the lowest in any season in which Cooke has appeared in 52 or more games.
While Cooke struggled with the transition at first—several times becoming visibly upset early in the season after backing off of potentially big, clean hits—his physical game hardly suffered. Cooke posted 160 hits in his 82 contests, at least 20 fewer than in his previous two seasons with the Penguins but still third-most among Penguins forwards.
Cooke is in the final year of a deal which would pay him $1.8 million for the coming season. If the 33 year old can stay healthy and productive while sticking to his reformed physical game, he may be able to earn himself another extension with the Pens.
Brandon Sutter, C
2011 (CAR): 82 GP // 17 G // 15 A // minus-3 // 21 PIM // 53 Hits // 2 PPG // 1 PPA // 171 SOG // .39 PPG
The lynchpin of the Jordan Staal trade, C Brandon Sutter is set to become the newest piece of the three-center model which has defined the Penguins in the post-lockout era.
Sutter enters 2012-13 as a four-year veteran and former first-round pick. In 286 career games with the Hurricanes, Sutter amassed 53 goals, 54 assists (107 pts), a plus-8 rating and a .374 PPG average while playing in a mostly defensive role. Sutter set a career-high in goals and points in 2009-10 (21-19-40), his second year and first full season in the NHL.
The 23 year old hasn’t missed a game in two seasons and has appeared in 236 of 246 games since 2009-10.
His challenge in Pittsburgh will be to replace the minutes Staal ate up. Defensively, Sutter’s +QoC (Quality of Competition) Score placed better than Staal’s. Sutter finished 19th among all forwards with at least 60 games played with a .073 +QoC score—Staal 31st at .061 +QoC.
For reference, David Backes finished first among all forwards with a .117 +QoC and Detroit’s Cory Emmerton 300th at -0.169. Realistically, Staal and Sutter finished with very comparable Quality of Competition numbers.
The two biggest differences between the players are offensive upside and salary flexibility, and the Penguins gave up the former in part to gain more of the latter.
Staal turned down the 10-year, $60 million dollar offer in Pittsburgh which he soon after signed in Carolina. While a player of his caliber at $6 million per season would have been a good get for the Penguins, Sutter will come in at $2.067 million in each of the next two seasons. That’s a considerable amount of money to save, and would continue to be vital money saved even if Sutter earns an extension with the Penguins.
That money is of no small importance with a lockout on the horizon and the pending extensions of Malkin and Letang to consider.
Can Sutter replace Staal’s offense? It would be no surprise to see him post career-highs in goals and points in Pittsburgh, where six players posted career-bests in goals, assists or points last year as part of the league’s highest-scoring offense. However, a full season from Crosby is all the Penguins might need to account for the offense Staal would have provided.
More than anything, the team will hope Sutter can bring some of the defensive acumen that was in such short supply against Philadelphia last April.
Image clydeorama @ flickr