After breaking into NHL as undrafted free agent, Chris Kunitz set to join exclusive 1,000-game club

After breaking into NHL as undrafted free agent, Chris Kunitz set to join exclusive 1,000-game club

Chris Kunitz is the only active NHL player with four Stanley Cups on his résumé. And he’s about to join another exclusive club.

On Thursday when he takes the ice against the New Jersey Devils, the 39-year-old winger will become the 25th active player to hit the 1,000-game mark and 335th player in league history to do so. In a classy gesture, the Blackhawks held Kunitz out of the lineup on Tuesday in Boston so the milestone would come in front of family members in Chicago, where his wife and her family grew up.

“It's something that's kind of been on the radar, but I knew coming here it wasn't something that I needed to say my career has been complete," Kunitz said. "That's obviously a really nice thing, and the team and organization has found a way to help me get into a game at home. It'll be a really big day for my family."

Hitting the 1,000-game mark isn't exactly a goal you set out to achieve when you start your hockey career, but one you grow to appreciate when you hit that plateau. Especially when you think back to the days where you wondered if you'd even have a career in hockey after going undrafted.

"I didn't actually think I'd have a career until you start playing in it," Kunitz said. "And once you're in it you just try and hang on as long as you can. I've been very fortunate the opportunities that I've had and teammates and people I've come across in my career."

Despite averaging only 9:27 of ice time this season and finding himself in and out of the lineup, Kunitz has been a first-class teammate and perfect mentor for some of the younger players, both on and off the ice.

“He's a great guy and a great teammate, and obviously brings leadership and experience," Jonathan Toews said. "We have a young team. A couple of veterans and a lot of young guys that are really developing and showing what they can do at this level and obviously showing there's a lot more to come down the road. I think a guy like [Kunitz], with his limited opportunity, he's played really well when he's gotten the chance.

"But aside from that, he adds that veteran presence and that leadership in the room. Plus, he's just a great person and a great guy to be around. You look at what he's meant to the championship teams he's been on in his career, you kind of realize what he brings to the table and what he means to a team in the locker room."

Having a veteran like that in the locker room is so important to building a winning and tight-knit culture. Nobody knows that more than Kunitz, who’s been on four different championship-winning teams. It's why the Blackhawks brought him in on a one-year deal this summer.

"He’s a great person, great teammate," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Obviously, his career has been fantastic and I think he’s been playing pretty well lately, giving us professional shifts. He does a lot of little things away from the puck. There’s a reason why he’s had so much success as a player, played on championship teams over and over again.

"He’s had a great career. His accomplishments speak for themselves. He’s been a terrific presence in the dressing room and he’s played pretty well, too. Big night for him."

While 1,000 games in the NHL is a big accomplishment, Kunitz downsized the individual achievement because the Blackhawks find themselves in the thick of a playoff race and he knows the importance of Thursday's game. His focus is on doing anything he can to help the team come away with two points.

"It's really nice that it's happened," Kunitz said. "I'm sure in a few years I'll think of it maybe a little different, but I still think of it as just going out and helping the team win tonight."

Blackhawks acquire Olli Maatta, send Dominik Kahun to Penguins

Blackhawks acquire Olli Maatta, send Dominik Kahun to Penguins

One of the Blackhawks’ priorities this summer is to add pieces that will help shore up the defensive part of their game after they gave up the second-most goals in the NHL last season. And they didn’t waste much time doing it.

Less than a week before the 2019 NHL Draft, the Blackhawks announced Saturday that they have acquired defenseman Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round pick.

Maatta is 24 years old, carries a left-handed shot and is a two-time Stanley Cup champion. But he battled injuries last season and fell out of favor in Pittsburgh, where he was a healthy scratch for three games in the first round of the playoffs.

The Blackhawks are hoping a fresh start could help Maatta find his game again, and do it in a place that may better utilize his skill-set. Where he could help is in the defensive part. 

According to The Point, Maatta ranked 9th among defensemen in blocked shots per game (2.05), 26th in defensive zone puck battles won (2.45), 40th in blocked defense zone passes (3.77) and 47th in outlet passes (8.95). 

Maatta, who was taken in the first round (No. 22 overall) in 2012, had 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) in 60 games last season. His best year came in 2017-18 when he tallied 29 points (seven goals, 22 assists) in 82 games. He has three years remaining on his deal that carries a $4.083 million cap hit.

It’s worth noting that when Maatta signing his extension with Pittsburgh on Feb. 26, 2016, the contract included a modified no-trade clause in his final two years, according to Cap Friendly. The Blackhawks will have the option to either honor that clause or nullify it.

The Blackhawks are expected to have some heavy competition among the forwards at training camp with the signings of Dominik Kubalik and Anton Wedin. That likely made Kahun expendable despite a rookie season in which he compiled 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists) in 82 games.

2019 NHL Draft Profile: RW Kaapo Kakko

2019 NHL Draft Profile: RW Kaapo Kakko

From June 10-20, Charlie Roumeliotis will profile one top prospect per day — 11 total — leading up to the 2019 NHL Draft as the Blackhawks prepare to pick third overall.

Kaapo Kakko

Position: Right wing
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 194 pounds
Shoots: Left

Scouting report from The Draft Analyst's Steve Kournianos:

"Multi-tooled winger with size and coordination who incorporates his impressive puck skills with a desirable physical package that consistently exhausts opponents. Blessed with incredibly soft hands and tight-quarter quickness, Kakko is a reliable stickhandler who uses timing plays to either get open or create space for his linemates.”

NHL player comparable: Mikko Rantanen

Fit for Blackhawks:

Alright, let’s get this out of the way with: Kakko isn’t going to be on the board when the Blackhawks pick at No. 3. He’s expected to be taken second overall by the New York Rangers.

But, hypothetically, if he did slip, Kakko is probably one of two players in this draft class who could step onto an NHL roster today and make an immediate impact. He’s that good, and we saw it at the 2019 IIHF World Championship when he scored six goals to lead Finland to a gold medal. 

Kakko would give the Blackhawks a dynamic winger on the right side to go along with Patrick Kane, meaning they wouldn't have to worry about their top-six right wingers for many years to come. You shouldn't draft a winger this high unless he's as close to a sure-fire prospect as they come, and Kakko would qualify.

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