Every player goes through it. They have extremely productive careers and then they hit a certain age where they begin to lose their abilities. It starts slowly at first. Maybe they can't skate as quickly as they did. Maybe their wrist shots are a little less fast. Maybe they just lose a bit of their vision to create plays or finish them. Once this starts, it usually creates an avalanche effect and the player is left contemplating retirement quickly. Many times this happens to players of any sport in their mid-30s, but Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, and Rob Scuderi are bucking the trend this year for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
|Chris Kunitz (Photo courtesy of pittsburghpenguins.com)|
1. Chris Kunitz - Age 35 - Signed through 2017
Chris Kunitz is the first person on this list. The cap hit of his contract is a tick under $4 million a season. Jussi Jokinen, Drew Stafford, and Jiri Hudler are all making slightly more than he is in terms of their cap hits. As of Sunday, Chris Kunitz is second on the Penguins with 8 goals, which is one more than Sidney Crosby. He is tied for sixth in the NHL in goals and tied for twelfth in scoring. There is no doubt that he enjoys an uptick in production playing alongside Sidney Crosby, but he is a great player in his own right. He is coming off a career season with 35 goals and 68 points. He also earned an invitation to be on the highly competitive Canadian Olympic team last year. Let's remember that he was undrafted out of Ferris State, and now he is making a living in front of the net for the Penguins. With a quick release on his shot and the ability to outwork and out-physical his opponent, Kunitz is in the prime of his career. He looks poised to be near 30 goals and 30 assists again this season. His production makes his contract a bargain and a sure mainstay on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby.
|Pascal Dupuis (Photo courtesy of NESN.com)|
2. Pascal Dupuis - Age 35 - Signed through 2017
A rather surprising appearance on this list (although not the most surprising -- that is #3), Pascal Dupuis is having quite the bounce back season. After two 20 goal seasons and a great start to 2013-14, Dupuis suffered a season ending ACL injury after Sidney Crosby fell on his leg during a game against the Senators last December. He made a speedy recovery and participated in some of Penguins' training camp. Many questioned what player would come out of the tunnel for the 2014-15 season. He had been the heart and soul of the Penguins the past few years -- that part would remain the same. He was also a fan favorite -- that would also remain the same. Many fans, however (myself included), tempered expectations for him this season. The fact is that he was 35 years of age and coming off a devastating knee injury. He would still contribute but surely he would not be the same player, right? Well, it has been only thirteen games, but Dupuis looks better to me than he ever has. He is very fast on his skates. He already has 4 goals and 9 points on the season, and he looks to be playing well alongside Evgeni Malkin. This has been incredibly important given Malkin's history of having trouble creating chemistry with linemates. Combine this with the departure of James Neal in the offseason and Beau Bennett suffering a preseason injury, and the beginning of the year could have been a disaster for Malkin. The fact that Dupuis was able to step onto the second line seamlessly is a big reason the Penguins have been so successful in the early part of this season. Dupuis has also been getting valuable minutes on the penalty kill and the second unit of the power play. Additionally, he earned a ton of respect from his teammates and fans after the way he bounced back from a scary situation against the Dallas Stars earlier this year. He took a cross check to the back and a slap shot to the neck while screening the opposing goaltender. After falling to the ice with numbness in parts of his upper-body, he eventually was taken from the ice on a stretcher. In what looked like a potentially long-term injury, Dupuis, somewhat miraculously, played the very next game. He has been everything the Penguins have needed so far and then some, and it does not look like he is slowing down anytime soon.
|Rob Scuderi (Photo courtesy of CBSSports.com)|
Yes, Rob Scuderi... THAT Rob Scuderi. The same one who had a miserable year last year and everyone wanted to run out of town. It is also the same one who five years ago earned the moniker of "the piece" for all of the essential plays he made down the stretch for the Penguins during their last Stanley Cup run. It was incredibly easy to think and even expect Scuderi's career to be over after last season. He looked slow. He was frequently out of position. He cost his team points and, quite frankly, he was a liability while on the ice. At 35 years of age, he was done. However, if fans pull themselves away for a minute and look at last season objectively, they should be able to recognize the first part of Scuderi's 2013-14 campaign (pre-ankle injury) and realize he was actually playing really well before he broke his ankle. He never quite looked like the same player after that, and he looked INCREDIBLY slow. Luckily, after recognizing he had a terrible year and putting in a lot of hard work in the offseason, things are turning around for #4. He also seems to be thriving in Mike Johnston's system. The puck possession mentality clearly plays into Scuderi's game much more than the north/south stretch passes with a lot of up and down the ice in Bylsma's system. It is not that the players do not have the autonomy to still jump into the rush, but there is clearly a renewed focus in the defensive end. It is also clear Scuderi is more comfortable. Take a look at this year compared to last year for Scuderi:
Last year Scuderi ranked 34th out of 37 players in +/- for the Penguins. He finished with a -8 and was on the ice for 38 5-on-5 goals. Scuderi is a +5 to start the 2014-15 season and has only been on the ice for four 5-on-5 goals. Johnston and the Penguins have also been smarter with Scuderi. Johnston has decreased his average ice time from last year from 18:55 per game to 17:20 per game but his shorthanded average ice time has gone up from 2:38 per game to 3:12 per game this season. He has been a solid stay-at-home defenseman and is one of the biggest early surprises this season.
|Craig Adams (Photo Courtesy of pittsburghpenguins.com)|