PITTSBURGH -- On a team loaded with potential future Hall of Fame members and past National Hockey League MVPs, scoring champions and goals leaders, there's one player, above all, whom many Pittsburgh Penguins forwards openly campaign to have as a linemate.
A player with whom Sidney Crosby said he has the "most comfort."
One coach Dan Bylsma said "is a perfect complement to a lot of different guys."
Said James Neal, "Everyone loves playing with him."
The most sought-after linemate on the Penguins? Chris Kunitz.
"He's great to play with," Pascal Dupuis said. "He's the complete player."
Only one player has been on the NHL's most productive line each of the past two seasons. Yes, he plays for the Penguins; no, it's not former Hart Trophy winners Malkin or Crosby. Not goal-every-other-game man Neal, either.
"He does it offensively and defensively," said Dupuis, who spent most of this season as the right wing on a line with Crosby at center and Kunitz on the left side.
"If you look at Chris, his plus/minus is near the top of the League. He plays hard, he's putting the puck on the net. He led our team in goals this year -- and he's doing all the little things that make our team successful too. He's on the forecheck, he tracks back, he finishes checks, he goes to the net. He does it all."
Kunitz had the most goals (22) on the team with the most goals in the League. His plus-30 rating was second-best in the NHL, his nine power-play goals tied for third. Kunitz finished seventh in the scoring race with 52 points in 48 games, reaching at least 20 goals for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
Kunitz, Dupuis and Crosby combined for 146 points this season. Last season, Kunitz regularly was on a line with Malkin and Neal when those three put up 116 goals, most of any three teammates.
Malkin won the Hart Trophy last season, and Crosby, despite missing a quarter of the campaign, is one of the favorites for the award this season.
The common thread? Kunitz was their left wing.
"Wherever you're put, you want to fit in and help your line be successful," Kunitz said. "I like to go out there and work hard and try to get my linemates the puck where they need to be. I'm fortunate to play with a lot of great players on this team, so wherever you're slotted, you go out and do your role. That's kind of why the coaches put you in that area -- to try to make that line successful."
With the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs a day away for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed, what linemates Kunitz will have the opportunity to bolster remained a mystery.
During practice the past two days, Kunitz was with Malkin and Iginla. But that is with Crosby not cleared to play. Malkin said Tuesday he expects Kunitz to return to playing with Crosby and Dupuis when Crosby returns to game action. Bylsma refuses to tip his hand.
But whether it's Malkin or Crosby as his center, Dupuis or Iginla as his opposite wing, Kunitz doesn't change his game.
"I know my role and how to accomplish it," Kunitz said. "And I know if I'm doing something wrong, I'm not going to be on the positive side of things with my linemates. But if I do my job, I don't have to worry about too much."
Unlike his teammates who were first-round draft picks -- Crosby, Malkin, Iginla, Neal, Brenden Morrow, Brandon Sutter and Beau Bennett -- Kunitz was undrafted out of juniors and while playing at Ferris State of the NCAA.
Despite the low-pedigree background, Kunitz has made a living playing alongside high-end teammates. After choosing to sign with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003, Kunitz was waived on the eve of the 2005-06 season.
After two weeks -- and two games -- with the Atlanta Thrashers, Anaheim scooped him back up. Soon after, he was skating with likely Hall of Fame member Teemu Selanne. The following season, Kunitz was on the top line for a Ducks team that won the Stanley Cup.
Who else can say they've been the perfect linemate for the likes of Selanne, Malkin and Crosby?
"Chris Kunitz is not a tough guy to read off of and understand what he's going to do," Bylsma said. "He provides certain attributes as a winger and does that for either [Malkin or Crosby]."
At 6 feet, 193 pounds, Kunitz isn't a prototypical power forward -- but he did finish third among Penguins forwards in hits. He doesn't possess the pure shot of a Neal or a Malkin, but he outscored both this season. Kunitz isn't as fast as Dupuis or Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, but his skating is swift and aggressive enough that Kunitz's best attribute, arguably, is his forecheck.
He'll play in front of the net on the power play and dig in the corners during 5-on-5 play. Perhaps the best compliment you could pay Kunitz is that he plays a fourth-liner's game with first-liner's production.
"I don't have that end-to-end skill or I'm not going to beat too many guys 1-on-1," Kunitz said. "But I enjoy going in and looking for the pucks and battling out and trying to make our line both offensive as well as responsible defensively. It's all a combination of trying to do all those things well."
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