Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman and his management group had to answer one question regarding whether or not Penguins forward Chris Kunitz should be on their Olympic roster for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Does Kunitz, on his own, belong on their team?
“And our answer was yes, he belongs on this team,” Yzerman said.
Kunitz’s name was announced as one of 25 players for Team Canada. And he earned the right to play for his country on his own merit.
“Chris Kunitz has been an outstanding player throughout his career,” Yzerman said. “He's a Stanley Cup champion. Played for me in the 2008 World Championships and was a very good player on that team. He's virtually been in the playoffs every year so we haven't had the opportunity to bring him to other World Championships. He's played extremely well, he's a hard-nosed player.”
Kunitz will join longtime linemate Sidney Crosby on the biggest stage in international hockey.
Though some critics have said that Kunitz’s success is attributable to playing alongside the greatest player in the world in Crosby, Yzerman argued that “yes, he plays with Sidney Crosby (but) he's been a great contributor not only to that line but to his team, whether it be 5-on-5 or the power play."
Yzerman referenced Kunitz’s body of work throughout his entire career and not just his time in Pittsburgh playing with Crosby, as did Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, who will be the head coach of Team USA.
First, Bylsma mentioned Kunitz playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal during the 2011-12 season. Alongside Kunitz, who scored a career-high 26 goals of his own, Malkin scored 50 goals and 109 points to win the Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay Awards while Neal scored 40 goals and was named an NHL All-Star.
Bylsma then talked about what Kunitz was able to do during his time in Anaheim, where he won the Stanley Cup in 2007 playing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry – who will be his teammates in Sochi. Funny how that works out.
“I’ve talked about this a lot – two years ago he played with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal and that was the best line in hockey for a stretch during that year,” Bylsma said. “He won a Stanley Cup and played with Getzlaf and Perry. I think he’s been on three of the top six lines in the last six years. It’s not just the line with Sidney Crosby he’s been on that’s been the best in the league. I think he’s proven he can play. Not just with Crosby and on that line. I think he’s proven he can play with other players and he’s proven he can play with other players that are on that team.”
To be fair, Kunitz isn’t offended by those who say he’s only going to Sochi because of ‘Sid’ – he understands that while he’s proven himself individually in the eyes of those that matter, his chemistry with Canada’s best player in a tournament where guys only have days to come together is a big reason why he made the team.
“A lot of it has to do with the chemistry with Sid,” he said. “It helps a lot. I’ve played with a lot of good players; playing with Sid kind of elevates that a little bit more.”
Kunitz just hopes he can continue doing in Sochi what he’s been doing in Pittsburgh – earn the right to skate alongside the world’s best players.
“Going out there, working every night trying to focus on your day job put me in the right mindset to get your foot in the door for Team Canada,” Kunitz said. “Got to go out and produce every night and that’s something I’ve worked hard at, just trying to be consistent throughout the years.
“I try and focus on myself, try and go out and prove every night that I need to be able to stay with Sid. I’ve got to go out and work there every night. Our coaches can change the lineup whenever they want. But you’ve got to go out and earn that and I think I’ve done that so far and hopefully keep going through to that process.”