By David Boclair
If you did not know Luke Kunin’s story already, the 2020-21 NHL season – his first as a member of the Nashville Predators – played out as sort of a Cliff’s Notes version.
Throughout the course of a campaign abbreviated by COVID-19 issues, Kunin experienced many of the same things he had over the preceding decade when he made the long climb from youthful dreamer to established NHL player. There were high hopes at the start that not long after were stunted by health issues, but he emerged on the other side as a productive and reliable performer. And the hopes for what is to come are as high, if not higher, than when he started.
Over the past four years, the Predators invested heavily in forwards who helped them reach the 2017 Stanley Cup final (Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson) or were perceived as the missing piece (Matt Duchene), but franchise officials have not seen anything close to the desired return on the millions they have paid out to this point.
Following a third straight season that did not last past the first playoff round, the message was sent: no longer will professional resumes and contracts be the deciding factor in roles and ice time. “The good news is we had seven guys who scored 10 goals or more,” said GM David Poile at the start of the off-season. “(But) if we could have somebody who could score 30 on a regular basis and somebody who could come up a little bit bigger in the playoffs, offensively, that is what is going to take us to the next step.”
Kunin, a 23-year-old out of Chesterfield, Mo., might just be that guy. He was one of the seven with at least 10 goals, but eight of his 10 came over his final 17 games, when Nashville surged into the Central Division’s final playoff spot. He capped that stretch with two goals, including the winner, in a victory over Carolina that assured the post-season berth.
Kunin’s hot streak started immediately after he missed a month due to injury. He had at least one point in five of his first six games back, beginning with two assists in his return, and Nashville was 14-6-1 with him in the lineup. Then, he scored twice in a Round 1, Game 4 victory over Carolina, the second of which was the double-OT winner. “It took me a little longer, obviously, than I would’ve liked to find what I needed to do to fit in and help this team have success,” Kunin said. “I was playing with some pretty special players all year. So, it was good.”
Among the Preds’ top 10 goal-scorers, he was one of two younger than 25. That makes him a prime candidate for bigger and better things in the coming years. Johansen, for example, has not scored more than 15 goals since 2014-15. Duchene’s goals-per-game average in two seasons with Nashville is two-thirds his career average, and Forsberg’s shooting percentage has decreased steadily and dramatically the past three seasons.
Plus, Kunin, who can play center or the wing, has a background that gives him an appreciation for whatever chances come his way that is unique compared to most others who pursue NHL careers.
He was only 12 when physical issues created doubt about whether he would get this far, or even come close. It took time, but doctors finally determined he had Type 1 diabetes. He not only learned to live with the condition, he thrived in the face of it and did so with a passion and perspective that has been recognized virtually every step of the way. As a teenager, he was captain for the U.S. when it won gold at the 2017 world juniors, captain in just his second (and last) year at Wisconsin and a first-round pick (15th overall) by Minnesota in 2016.
The Predators acquired him in a trade with the Wild during the 2020 draft as part of an attempt to get younger and more physically challenging in John Hynes’ first full season as coach. Nashville signed Kunin to a two-year, $4.6-million contract in January, which makes the 2021-22 season an important one for him.
Kunin can become an RFA next summer, when four forwards currently under contract, including Forsberg, are scheduled to become UFAs. “Whatever they think that I need to fill, I’m willing to do that,” Kunin said. “But I definitely think I have the talent to play with some very skilled players like they have and help them have success offensively.”