There's a level of uncertainty for even the most seasoned of NHL players heading into a new season. As battles for spots on the Opening Night roster drag out and player's state their respective cases, the verdict often reflects a combination of projective evaluations and strong consideration towards asset management.
Tom Kuhnhackl has first-handedly experienced the challenge of making that coveted roster out of training camp. In turn, the experience has provided the 27-year-old with a notable amount of 'street cred' and enhanced the wisdom and pride in which he embodies. His stats, 48-career points (15G, 33A) throughout 204 games, aren't mouth-dropping, but his individual preparation, consistent execution and interactions make him a valuable fixture to a franchise.
"He's been fighting for a job for about five or six years now and he keeps landing one and that's not by accident," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "You look at a guy like Tommy Kuhnhackl and how does he separate himself from other players? He's incredibly determined guy. He seems to get it done all the time. He commits every game. He gives you everything he has. He's a useful guy. He can play multiple positions and can kill penalties. He leaves nothing left. That's how he separates himself. That's what he does. He's got two rings on his finger and keeps making teams that a lot of times he's an afterthought. He forces organizations and staffs to make him not an afterthought."
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As Kuhnhackl enters his fifth season in the NHL and second campaign with the Islanders, the insightful German has quietly established himself as an asset through his actions and accomplishments. The versatile winger comes from a hockey family - his father Erich Kuhnhackl is one of the all-time greats in German hockey history - but his path to the NHL was a humbling one.
Drafted in the fourth round by the Penguins in 2010, Kuhnhackl found himself in the ECHL in each of his first two pro seasons. Pittsburgh prompted him to transform his game if he saw a future for himself in the NHL. His offense wouldn't carry him up the ranks, per say, but rather the work ethic and determination that Kuhnhackl routinely displays. That's what made has him such an impressionable player throughout his career.
"My first year when I turned pro, I got sent down to the East Coast [Wheeling Nailers]," Kuhnhackl explained. "That's when the organization in Pittsburgh told me I had to turn my game around if I wanted to make it to the league and establish myself there. So, I had to turn my game around. Obviously, being a penalty killer, being reliable defensively is a big part it. It took me a little bit, but the first couple years in Wheeling and in Wilkes-Barre helped out a lot. The coaches there put me in those situations, and I got to work on them. It took a couple of years in the East Coast and I turned my game around."
Kuhnhackl embraced the suggestion and evolved his game to become a true two-way forward and surely enough, his call-up soon followed. The opportunity first presented itself during the 2015-16 season, when the GM Jim Rutherford looked to bolster the eventual Stanley Cup-winning lineup with the mid-season additions of defensively solid and accountable players like Kuhnhackl, who became regulars during playoffs and throughout the Penguins quest to back-to-back titles.
"If you look back at my time in Pittsburgh, we didn't have that many penalty killers at the time," Kuhnhackl recalled. "We had a really, really skilled team with a lot of offensive power, but when it came down to the end of the game and defending a lead, penalty killing or blocking shots, we didn't really have that many players at that point. I really took pride in that from that point on. I try to do that now [with the Islanders] in every game. It doesn't matter if it's preseason or whatever. I'm just trying to establish that goal and try to do that as good as I can."
This past July, Kuhnhackl re-signed a one-year deal with the Islanders. For the 27-year-old, the detail-oriented structure, disciplined, defensive mentality of the Islanders' systems are the perfect fit. The we-over-me mantra of the Isles not only embraces the role of unsung heroes like Kuhnhackl, but also places a strong emphasis towards every player to mirror that same work ethic and humility.
"We have a lot of guys on this team who take pride in that; in being a penalty killer or being a reliable, defensive forward," Kuhnhackl said. "If you look at last year, we had the least amount of goals in the league and the year before we had the most. Obviously, now everybody really takes pride in working hard in the defensive zone. Good defense leads to good offense. As long as I can help the team out in playing good defensively and help to then create that offense and playing within our structure, we can be pretty successful."
With a new season knocking on the doorstep and 55 playoff appearances under his belt, Kuhnhackl still recognizes the talent around him and need to push himself to be at his best whether that's being a mainstay on the penalty kill or pushing his counterparts at practices. Trotz said that Kuhnhackl is in a battle for one of the Islanders final spots - alongside names like Tanner Fritz and Michael Dal Colle - so he'll have to keep fighting, but that's familiar territory. Despite any outside pressures or uncertainty, Kuhnhackl showcases a level-headed focus.
"It's a competitive camp," Kuhnhackl said. "All you can do is go out there play your best and give it your all. Everybody is a great player in here. We have great depth. It doesn't matter if you're going to play here or in Bridgeport. Everybody is going to get their chance. You've just got to make sure you give your best every day."