THN in Sochi: What to do with Chris Kunitz?

Despite drawing big minutes with his Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz has had an underwhelming first two games in the OIympics. It’s time for Mike Babcock to move him down the depth chart and replace him on the first line.

SOCHI – Canadian Olympic team coach Mike Babcock intends to use his day off Saturday to do a lot of thinking about how his roster will look for the rest of the tournament. He certainly wasn’t tipping his hand at his news conference, but seemed to enjoy the cat and mouse game with reporters.

Which brings us to Chris Kunitz. Babcock faces a vexing question with respect to Kunitz, who has been almost invisible in Canada’s first two games, despite drawing significant minutes on the top line with his Pittsburgh Penguins running mate Sidney Crosby. Kunitz has looked overmatched and out of place against the two weakest opponents Canada is going to face in this tournament and there have to be concerns about how he responds to the tougher competition, which begins Sunday when Canada closes out its preliminary round against Finland.

If I’m Babcock, I need more out of my top nine forwards than I’m getting. Crosby has been actually quite good and has created a lot of opportunities and managed to draw an assist on one of Jeff Carter’s three goals against Austria. But having Kunitz on that line, for whatever reason, has been a bad fit and it’s something Babcock must address.

That’s why Babcock has little choice but to move Kunitz to the bottom of his depth chart. Don’t be surprised to see Kunitz occupying the 13th forward spot, if for no other reason than it seems to bring out the best in anyone who plays there. But if I’m Babcock, I’ve got to even consider making Kunitz the healthy scratch at forward and giving Matt Duchene another opportunity.

The key to this is how Crosby would respond to such a move. He has great chemistry with Kunitz in Pittsburgh and is one of the main reasons why Kunitz is here in the first place. The betting here is that Crosby, as he has always done in his career, puts the team first and goes along with whatever Babcock and the Canadian management team decides. Crosby would not be the captain of this team if he were the type of player to allow a move like that to affect his play or his approach to the game.

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Does this make Kunitz a bad player? Of course not. He’s a good player who’s going through a bad patch at an inopportune time. He has been a very good NHL player with and without Crosby on his line and has played well both in the best league in the world and in international competition. But anyone who has watched Canada’s games to this point cannot dispute the fact that he has been Canada’s most underwhelming forward to this point.

Babcock owes it to his team to do what is best the rest of the way and the best decision is to take Kunitz off the top line and replace him with someone who is playing better. There is no shortage of candidates. Carter scored three goals against Austria despite playing just 8:42, the fewest minutes for any Canadian forward. He was also on the ice for two more Canadian goals and would give Crosby and Martin St-Louis (if St-Louis were to stay there) some size and a player who would be able to finish off deft passes from either Crosby or St-Louis.

The comes the even more difficult question of who starts in goal. Roberto Luongo was as solid as he has been in weeks against Austria and has the international experience that might come in handy at this point in the tournament.

No matter what Babcock decides, the decision will be parsed and dissected from every angle and, if Canada fails to win, questioned from coast to coast. Babcock recalled his first international assignment, coaching Canada’s world junior team in 1997 when the tournament was in Switzerland. Even though Canada won the gold medal, Babcock said he had no idea how badly he was getting criticized back home. It’s not so easy to avoid the comments now, but Babcock said he manages to do so.

“Then I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it,” Babcock said. “Now I’d be ready to handle it, but I don’t hear anything because I don’t look and I don’t care.”