Blackhawks' Kunitz thrilled at chance to play with Toews

Brandon Saad. Richard Panik. Patrick Sharp.

Alex DeBrincat. Vinnie Hinostroza. John Hayden.

Tommy Wingels. Anthony Duclair. Patrick Kane. Ryan Hartman.

For the most part, those are the 10 wingers who played with Jonathan Toews last season, another campaign that didn't measure up to the captain's sky-high expectations.

When Blackhawks training camp dawned Friday, coach Joel Quenneville placed DeBrincat and 38-year-old Chris Kunitz with Toews.

Kunitz — quite obviously — is thrilled about the opportunity. Even if he was at least mildly shocked by the decision.

“That means a lot,” said Kunitz, whose average time on ice was 11:57 with Tampa Bay last season and signed a one-year deal with the Hawks in part because his wife is from Schaumburg. “It's been a while since I've played big minutes with teams, but I knew coming here that I'd be able to slide up and down their lineup and go with whatever role they're going to put me in.”

Kunitz, who was undrafted and broke into the league with Anaheim in 2003-04, has 305 NHL goals and another 27 in 178 Stanley Cup playoff games. Five years ago he set a career highs in goals (35) and points (68) with the Penguins while skating with Sidney Crosby and getting ample power-play time.

Since then, Kunitz's ice time and production have steadily slipped. Last season with the Lightning, he scored 13 times on a career-low 81 shots, then registered just 1 assist in 17 playoff games.

Still, that regular-season goal total is fairly impressive when you consider Kunitz was mainly in a checking role.

“He's still got the ability to contribute offensively and he brings a lot of things to the table,” GM Stan Bowman said in July. “I know Joel's excited about having that at his disposal.”

Kunitz has a winning pedigree, having played on thirteen straight playoff teams, and plenty of leadership skills. And the father of three plans on using them during camp to help young players get up to speed in a conference that's only getting better and better.

“With the age gap, you have to engage in conversation,” Kunitz said. “You have to learn who your teammates are and see what they like.

“When you can come in and talk to a guy and understand where he played before or what he does, he'll be more comfortable coming to you asking questions about things that happen in the league. Or maybe it's just systems or plays you're running on the ice.

“Anytime you do that, it makes you a better team.”

How long Kunitz stays on Toews' line is anyone's guess, but Quenneville said Friday that somebody is going to have to “prove they deserve to be there” before he considers making a change.

As for how long Kunitz will continue to play? Good question. All he knows is the hunger to compete still burns deep.

“When I'm in the locker room with guys, I don't feel like I'm 15 years older than them,” Kunitz said. “We have a lot mature guys. ...

“You think about what you do after (hockey) and that hasn't fallen into my mind too much yet. You take it one year at a time.

“Right now you don't take anything for granted. You've got to go and earn a spot on this team and try to be in the lineup every night. That's what I want to do.”

By the numbers

Chris Kunitz's stats the last five seasons:

Yr., team G A Pts. TOI

2013-14, Pit. 35 33 68 19:09

2014-15, Pit. 17 23 40 17:53

2015-16, Pit. 17 23 40 16:49

2016-17, Pit. 9 20 29 15:31

2017-18, TB 13 16 29 11:57

TOI - average time on ice

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