Blackhawks notebook: In Chris Kunitz, Marc-Andre Fleury has bit of Penguins past in Chicago

Kunitz, entering his third season as a Hawks assistant coach, has been friends with Fleury since their playing careers first overlapped in 2009.

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Marc-Andre Fleury is now coached by his old teammate Chris Kunitz on the Blackhawks.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — When not facing his longtime former team, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury always has a little bit of his Penguins past with him on the Blackhawks: Chris Kunitz.

Kunitz, 42, is quietly entering his third season as a Hawks assistant coach, and while he stays out of the public eye, he’s a regular alongside Jeremy Colliton and Marc Crawford helping to coordinate home practices.

“Having [Kunitz] around is a big benefit for everyone,” Colliton said last season. “With his experience, he’s got different ideas. It’s great for the coaching staff, too. He’s not around us all the time, and I actually like that because he’ll bring in an outside influence.”

Fleury hits the ice before practices and often sees Kunitz already on the ice, sketching out plays or drills on the whiteboard. Sometimes, Kunitz brings out his old forward skills and helps warm up Fleury with some shots.

Teammates on the Penguins for nine years, winners of three Stanley Cups together, their friendship dates to the early stages of their careers. Both left Pittsburgh at the same time, too, with Fleury going to the Golden Knights and Kunitz to the Lightning in the summer of 2017.

So as Fleury adjusts to his third team at 37, he can’t help but be amused by the fact that one of his new coaches is just his old teammate.

“I see him at the board, and I laugh,” Fleury said Friday. “It’s so weird. But he’s still the same guy. He always has that energy and makes you laugh. Good guy, good friend. It’s cool we can spend some time together.”

The Fleury family’s move to Chicago — a big stressor for Fleury this offseason — was also aided by knowing the Kunitzes.

“His wife helped my wife try to get settled in with babysitters or whatever else we were going to need,” Fleury said. “They’re very good people.”

Olympics intrigue DeBrincat

With teammates Patrick Kane and Seth Jones already selected for the U.S. 2022 Olympic team, Alex DeBrincat said he would love to participate, as well.

“Obviously, you want to represent your country on the biggest stage you can get,” DeBrincat said. “So [that provides] maybe a little bit of an extra boost. But right now we’re worried about the Blackhawks and not [Team] USA. [I’ll] just focus on that, and the rest will come.”

IceHogs loaded with prospects

The Rockford IceHogs started their 2021-22 AHL season Friday with an underwhelming 6-1 loss to Grand Rapids, the Red Wings’ affiliate. 

But the Hawks will keep an especially close eye on the IceHogs this season because of the surplus of prospects on their roster. 

Alex Nylander’s and Nicolas Beaudin’s quests to become NHL regulars again will depend on their AHL performances. Top prospect Lukas Reichel’s timeline until his NHL debut will depend on how quickly he adjusts in the AHL to North America’s smaller rinks. And late training-camp cuts Mike Hardman and Reese Johnson will be likely call-ups.

Hawks general manager Stan Bowman sees that youth-dominated team as a good environment for Nylander in particular to revive his career.

“Whether he’s with Reichel or whoever he’s with, we haven’t really had that type of skill level in Rockford probably since Teuvo [Teravainen] was here, and we never had more than one [guy with that skill level],” Bowman said. “It’s going to be an opportunity to play a lot of minutes, get [his] confidence back.”

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