When the Penguins selected Tom Kuhnhackl in the 4th round of the 2010 NHL draft, it was a bit of a rarity for the Ray Shero-led front office, especially back then. Kuhnhackl is a German player whose hockey training was solely done in his native country at that point with zero exposure to the North American game. But what the scouts likely saw at that point in time was a big-bodied player (6'2", 172 lbs) with good offensive potential and a great hockey lineage - his father Erich had a long career in Germany, has been inducted into the IIHF and German Ice Hockey Hall of Fames, and was named Germany's player of the 20th century in 2000.
After being drafted, Kuhnhackl made the decision to continue his hockey development in the OHL, first with the Windsor Spitfires in 2010-11 before finishing his second season with the Niagara Ice Dogs. His offensive talents shone through at the junior level as Kuhnhackl put up 97 points in as many games, with 47 goals and 50 assists, but he would also be suspended for 20 games when the OHL ruled he targeted Ryan Murphy's head in a huge hit behind the net. He would join the Pittsburgh organization in time for the 2012-13 season, but Kuhnhackl would see adversity at the professional level almost immediately.
After starting the season with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL and scoring a goal in 2 games played, Kuhnhackl was quickly recalled by the WBS Baby Pens. He posted a modest 4 points in 11 games at the AHL level, but his season was cut short after shoulder surgery that knocked his career development off track. And when Kuhnhackl struggled the next season, with just 8 goals and 2 assists in 48 games with Wilkes-Barre before being sent back down to Wheeling, it seemed that a once promising prospect would be added to the many busts that the team had seen before him.
But he had a good run with the Nailers, scoring 7 goals and 7 assists in 16 games during the regular season before adding 6 goals in 10 playoff games. Kuhnhackl worked to transform his game, realizing that his best chance of making the NHL wasn't going to be as a skilled winger but rather someone who made the most of his 6'2" frame playing a gritty bottom 6 role. He was beginning to be written off as someone who would make an impact in the NHL, but Kuhnhackl would end up making the Wilkes-Barre squad to start the year in 2014-15, and he'd post a respectable 12 goals and 18 assists in 72 games.
Along the way towards trying to position himself as a bottom 6 forward candidate in Pittsburgh, a funny thing happened - Kuhnhackl began to rediscover the scoring touch he had earlier in his hockey career. Starting the 2015-16 season in the AHL, Kuhnhackl enjoyed a strong start that saw him net 7 goals and add 8 assists in 23 games with the Baby Pens. He remained lower on the pecking order for recalls by the parent club, as players like Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, Kevin Porter, and Bryan Rust saw themselves receive the call to Pittsburgh, but the injuries that robbed the Penguins of their forward depth also gave Tom Kuhnhackl the opening he needed to make himself noticed.
Pittsburgh recalled Kuhnhackl in early January, and for the early part of his time in the NHL the team was icing a lineup containing a bottom 6 entirely made up of in-season AHL callups. Like his fellow former Baby Pens teammates, Kuhnhackl struggled in the early going with the NHL game, managing just a single assist in his first 16 games played. But also like the other callups, Kuhnhackl continued to adapt to the NHL game and grew more and more productive, with 13 points over the next 26 games, including 10 in his last 13 games. And the biggest thing is not so much that he's producing points but rather demonstrating the offensive talents and creativity that made him such an intriguing prospect in the first place.
It's ironic that Tom Kuhnhackl would try to change his game to give himself a better shot of reaching the NHL, but that once he got here it would be the offensive talents that he's always possessed that would give him the ability to make a mark and hopefully stick in the league. It wasn't a fruitless endeavor, as without adding the physicality to his game and molding himself into a well rounded two way player who could make use of his big frame it's questionable whether he would have made it this far, and it earned him a two year, one way contract extension earlier in the season. The jury is still out on the type of player Kuhnhackl will develop into, whether he'll be able to take the next step and turn into the type of winger that could handle a Chris Kunitz, Ryan Malone type role alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but it appears likely that he'll be able to carve out a role as a useful bottom 6 player at the very least. It's been a long, windy road to the NHL for Kuhnhackl filled with ups and downs, but his adaptability and perseverance are paying off, both for him and the Penguins' organization.