Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On the Chris Kunitz Extension

Since there is no time like two weeks after it was signed, let's take a look at the Chris Kunitz contract extension.

The Terms

Kunitz's current cap hit of $3.75M was extended for another 2 years with salary to match. There are a couple things to note about this. For one, it was signed at the start of the season, a practice Triumph discussed in a recent post. From the Pens' perspective, this opens them up to risk in case Kunitz gets an injury or is otherwise drastically less productive this year than he has been in recent years. I don't think this is quite as bad for the Penguins as other teams since they should be willing to spend over the cap by burying his contract if necessary. On the positive side of things, Shero doesn't risk Kunitz testing the free-agent market which could drive his price up.

Kunitz's age is a factor here. At 32 it seems likely that his skills will start to decline. Based on that, it may be surprising that he's not taking a salary cut but you have to remember the salary cap. The first season of his current deal, 2008-2009, the salary cap was $56.7 million. It is currently at $64.3M so his cap hit is down from 6.6% of the salary cap to 5.8%. Putting it in 2009 cap-hit dollars would make his salary $3.3 million, so it is a small drop.

Pittsburgh's Cap Situation

The Penguins are a unique team due to having Crosby, Malkin and to some extent Staal down the middle. I'll discuss the player-evaluation side of that later, but there are major salary-cap implications as well. Next offseason looks pretty standard as far as the cap goes, but bombs are about to fall on the Pens' cap situation. Here are the major players hitting unrestricted free agency, their current cap hit and the summer they become free agents.

PlayerCap Hit $MYear
Sidney Crosby8.72013
Jordan Staal42013
Evgeni Malkin8.72014
Kris Letang3.52014
Brooks Orpik3.752014
Chris Kunitz3.752014

Orpik seems like the odd man out there, but the rest of that group figures to get a raise and to be honest it's hard to see Shero being able to keep all of them together. In any case, cap space will be at a premium those seasons and Kunitz's contract runs out the summer after Crosby and Staal would need to be re-signed.

Even-Strength Production

The traditional fans would discuss his leadership and Cup experience helping tremendously in the 2009 Cup run. As important as that may have been, I prefer to look at measurable contributions.

Due especially to Crosby, one needs to take a with-or-without-you (WOWY) approach to analyze the production of wingers for the Penguins. Kunitz is a good example of that; he has spent more than half his time in Pittsburgh on Crosby's wing. Here is a table of the Corsi rate for Crosby, Malkin, Staal and none of those with and without Kunitz, as well as the time in minutes that Kunitz spent with them. I'm excluding time where two of Crosby, Malkin and Staal were on the ice together.

Centerw/ Kunitzw/out Kunitzwith TOI (m)

As you can see, Kunitz improved every line. Crosby's Corsi rate was nearly twice as high when Kunitz was beside him and in smaller samples Malkin and Staal's production was substantially higher with him. I should point out that Malkin's possession numbers without Crosby were drastically better in his shortened 2010-2011 season than previous years and over half of Kunitz's time with Malkin was last year. Kunitz gets some credit for that, but it seems like Malkin was better as well. The fourth line got marginally better results.

It's pretty clear that Kunitz has been a big boost.

Two Potential Concerns: Injuries and Scoring

In the summer, Pensburgh wrote a nice summary of both Kunitz's injuries and scoring with the Penguins. For a left winger, his points totals have been underwhelming due in part to his injuries. According to this guideline at PPP, an average first-line left winger would put in 27 goals. In the last three seasons, Kunitz put up 23, 13 and 23 goals. Going to points, the average for a first line left wing is 50 and Kunitz put up 48, 32 and 53 the last three years. So he's somewhere between an average first-line winger and an average second-line winger when it comes to scoring. A big reason for this is obviously missing significant time the last two years.

Another factor is that Kunitz's individual points percentage is nothing to write home about. He registered a goal or assist on 69.4% of all 5-on-5 goals scored with him on the ice, 7th highest among forwards on the team. This combined with his Corsi numbers make sense given his role - he is important in driving play, helping to move the puck into the offensive zone and keep it there, but Crosby is typically the man with the puck in the attacking end. I don't think his somewhat low scoring for a first-line winger is an issue given his role.

The Verdict

Overall, I think it's a good deal for both sides. Kunitz has been a very good role player the last 2+ seasons for the Penguins. While he is on the wrong side of 30, it seems reasonable to expect a similar level over the life of the contract. Injury concerns and his contract ending the season after Crosby and Staal are due to sign their extensions keep me from saying it is a great deal for the Pens, but even Shero would have to spend some money on wingers.

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