Pittsburgh must be a helluva place to play hockey.
That’s the only firm conclusion I can come to after seeing that Chris Kunitz signed what could be his final relevant contract without taking a raise while, in fact, actually taking a very slight pay cut.
Kuntiz’s extension, weighing in at two years and $7.45 million, which will kick in at the start of next season, reduces his cap hit to $3.725 from $3.75. Not a tremendous decrease, but, more importantly, not an increase of any kind.
There are sure to be performance bonuses and incentives, but I can’t imagine that they’re of an eye-opening variety. The proof is in the cap hit, and the cap hit his reasonable.
In today’s cap-conscious NHL, a non-increase actually works similar to a somewhat significant decrease. Since the NHL’s salary cap was introduced in 2006-07, the cap ceiling, the maximum a team can spend on player salaries, has increased every single year year. It started at a humble $39 million and has risen to $64.3 million today. It will likely go up again for the 2012-13 season.
Kunitz’s play had gone stagnant in Anaheim just prior to the trade. While the undrafted power forward scored 25 goals and recorded 60 points in 81 games 2006-07, a career best, his production dipped in subsequent years. It fell to 50 points in 81 games in 2007-08, and, through 62 games in 2008-09, Kunitz had only recorded 16 goals and 35 total points before heading to Pittsburgh.
Kunitz blew up when he first donned the black and Vegas gold, surging at the season’s end to put up 18 points in 20 games. In the playoffs, his performance was a mixed bag. His incredibly physical play added an important element to the Penguins game and he did manage 14 points in 24 games, a respectable number. But Kunitz only scored one goal en route to his second Stanley Cup victory.
Bluntly, he wasn’t put on Sidney Crosby’s line to set up goals.
Over the last two years, Kunitz has battled through a myriad of injuries, likely due to the physical nature of his play, with mixed results. In 2009-10, he recorded 32 points in only 50 games played. In the playoffs, he was more effective, putting up 11 points in 13 games before the Penguins were defeated by the Montreal Canadiens.
Last year, Kunitz’s play improved, much to the benefit of the injury-ravaged Penguins. He recorded 48 points in 66 games, and importantly 23 goals, to give the Penguins a desperately-needed scoring punch during the second half of the season.
In the playoffs, he was largely anonymous on offense, scoring one goal, his only point, in six games. Then again, so was much of the team.
The 32-year-old’s contract was scheduled to expire at the end of the season. If he would have tested the free agent market, judging by some of the silly deals that were handed out last summer, he would’ve likely earned a raise, especially if he played like he did at the end of last year.
But following the m.o. of many a recent Penguin, he signed an extension at a reasonable hit without testing the waters.
There is obvious concern with Kunitz’s health. After all, he missed a combined 46 regular season games over the last two seasons. A couple of years ago, I would’ve told you Kunitz’s contract was on the heavy side, one that was too expensive for a player of his ability (good, but not spectacular), and health history.
But with the continually rising tide of the cap ceiling and the absurdity of recent contracts, Kunitz’s hit suddenly seems reasonable.
(The Washington Capitals’ Joel Ward, for example, will be making $3 million a season over the next four years. He’s 30, and has never scored more than 35 points in the NHL. Ville Leino, 28, had a career best 53-point season last year in Philadelphia, and Buffallo signed him to a contract worth 4.5 million a season, over six years. They’ll all be about 34 at the end of their contracts, like Kunitz.)
In terms of finding a guy who has the ability, especially when he’s hot, to score goals in bunches, and one who fits into their system well, the Penguins did well by re-upping Kunitz, and at the term they did.