If this is the end, it’s not exactly how Chris Kunitz imagined going out.
As the Blackhawks play out the final week of the season, Kunitz might be wrapping up his career. It has been a good one, especially for a winger who broke into the NHL in 2003 undrafted: 1,000 games played, four Stanley Cups and a gold medal for Canada.
But this season has been taxing. The Hawks are sputtering to a second straight non-playoff finish, and Kunitz, 39, has been a healthy scratch in about a third of the games.
“It’s not something, individually, that you’re very proud of,” he said. “Being on a team that has had so many ups and downs is something that’s new in my career.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s gone this way. You obviously want to have a better outing when you come to a new team and a new city. It hasn’t been as promising as I wanted it to be when I signed the contract.”
Nonetheless, there have been some highlights. Kunitz said the 1,000th-game ceremony was something he and his family will remember forever, and Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton made a point of starting him against his former teams in Pittsburgh and Anaheim. After the Penguins honored him in a celebration of their 2009 title on Jan. 6, Kunitz scored his first goal of the season to help beat them.
Knowing those games and others could be his last in certain arenas has made it a somewhat sentimental year. Kunitz hasn’t yet decided whether to retire after 14 seasons. But, he said, “the older you get, it crosses your mind more,” and he’ll discuss it with his family once the season ends.
If he keeps playing, he doesn’t object to a limited, lower-line role. That often pushes players into retirement, but it hasn’t hurt Kunitz’s ego.
“I never really thought of myself as a top-line guy anyway,” he said. “I always thought of myself as a guy that works hard and grinds it out and finds a way. I’ve been fortunate to play with really good players and have them elevate my career. So, mentally, it didn’t change that much.”
Colliton reiterated Wednesday that the Hawks will continue to compete despite being knocked out of the playoff race because he wants to maintain the team culture. He didn’t give a definitive answer on whether he’ll scale back ice time for veteran stars such as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
“I think we’ve got to be reasonable, but we’re trying to win the games,” Colliton said.
He went with Cam Ward in net against the Blues, giving Corey Crawford a well-deserved break after playing 13 straight games. The Hawks also called up defenseman Dennis Gilbert from Rockford for his NHL debut.
Kane went into Wednesday’s game third in the league in minutes among forwards, while Toews was 12th.
With Kane and Toews scoring against the Blues, the Hawks have three 35-goal scorers for the first time since Denis Savard, Rick Vaive and Steve Larmer each topped 40 in 1987-88. Kane has 42, followed by Alex DeBrincat with 41 and Toews at 35.