EDMONTON, Alberta — After 14 seasons, 1,055 games and four Stanley Cups, it was almost like starting over for winger Chris Kunitz.
With no goals, one point and a minus-5 rating in his first 11 games with the Blackhawks, the former Penguin was a healthy scratch last week against the Oilers. It was only the third healthy scratch of his NHL career — and the first time since he became a regular in 2007.
“You want to have the coach have trust in you, that you can have an impact on the game,” Kunitz said before the rematch Thursday night against the Oilers at Rogers Place. “If you don’t have that, you’re kind of almost lost — playing the game, but without a purpose. And they know that. Obviously, that’s why they made that decision to put other guys out there.”
Kunitz, 39, accepted his punishment, watched from the press box and came back — as expected — determined to regain coach Joel Quenneville’s trust when he was back in the lineup against the Canucks on Wednesday night.
It didn’t take him long to make an impact. Kunitz assisted on Brandon Saad’s goal in the first period. With Saad in the midst of his own rejuvenation after a slow start, Kunitz played a strong two-way game despite the Hawks’ 4-2 loss.
“I think that’s trying to be a proud hockey player and going out and having that positive contribution, so it’s nice,” Kunitz said. “For a few games there, you feel like you’re chasing it, and nothing’s going right. You always wonder in the back of your mind, ‘Am I gonna sit this one?’
“It definitely feels good. I think any player in the NHL will tell you anytime they get one point, they have confidence, a little more jump in their step. And the game just seems a little bit easier. It helps for the personal confidence, just going out and making a play and having a positive contribution.”
Kunitz knows he still has a long way to go to give the Hawks the veteran spark they were looking for. His 12-game goal drought heading into the game Thursday night was his longest to start an NHL season in his 15-year career.
“I don’t think that’s indicative of how I’ll play all year,” Kunitz said. “Obviously, you want to contribute more offensively when you have a new career. You want to have an effect on the game. Hopefully, I’ll find one that will bounce in, and a couple more will go in.’’
There’s no telling how far pride can take a player such as Kunitz, who has been a dependable guy throughout his career and, most of all, a winner. Though he has played a complementary top-six role most of his career, it’s not a coincidence that he’s the only player in the salary-cap era to win four Stanley Cups — with the Ducks in 2007 and with the Penguins in 2009, 2016 and 2017.
And even when he was past his prime, he still found a way to make a difference. After scoring nine goals in the 2016-17 regular season with the Penguins, Kunitz scored the series-clinching goal in double overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Senators.
“I’ve got to commend him on how he’s handled coming into a new situation,” Quenneville said. “He’s got good awareness of his situation, his contribution. I think he’s gotten off to a start that’s been fine, but his [production] is certainly not what he envisioned. But I liked his response [Wednesday]. He’s a great pro. He wants to help us in a lot of different ways.”