Luke Kunin 2023 player review: What might have been...
An ACL injury cut short Luke Kunin's first season with the Sharks. How the forward could impact the team moving forward.
One of the first pieces new San Jose Sharks General Manager Mike Grier added last year as he started to put his mark on the franchise was forward Luke Kunin. On draft day, Grier traded John Leonard and a 2023 3rd round pick to the Nashville Predators for Kunin. Later that month, Grier signed the restricted free agent (RFA) to a two-year deal.
It was Grier's first step toward reshaping the Sharks' roster to be more difficult to play against.
Kunin's 2022-23 production
One year later, it's hard to judge who won the trade. Leonard played only six games this season for the Predators and spent most of his time in the AHL. Kunin, meanwhile, injured his ACL in December and underwent surgery later that month.
However, in the 31 games Kunin played for the Sharks until the injury, it looked like the 25-year-old was shaping nicely into a hard-nosed bottom-six forward with talent on special teams.
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Looking at his stats from this past year, one of the first things that stands out is the penalty minutes. With 42 PIMs in just 31 games, it would be easy to assume that Kunin is a liability. After all, when you have more penalty minutes than games played, it could be a sign of a careless player.
But let's break down those penalties. Five of those minutes can be attributed to a fighting major. Kunin went toe to toe with Anaheim's Nathan Beaulieu on Nov. 1, 2022.
Fifteen of the other minutes resulted from one play. During the Nov. 3, 2022 game against the Florida Panthers, Kunin receives a five-minute major and a game misconduct for hitting Patrick Hornqvist in the head.
Kunin did not receive supplemental discipline.
If you take those 20 minutes out of the mix, Kunin's penalties align with what you would expect. What's more, he's not a detriment to the team in the penalty department. According to Natural Stat Trick, Kunin drew eight penalties this season while taking ten minor penalties.
Deeper dive into Kunin's numbers
Another stat that stands out for Kunin is his shots on goal. 58 in 31 games. Kunin's shots were also from high-danger areas.
When you look at his shot chart from Evolving-Hockey, you see that Kunin is taking many shots from between the dots or even on the goalie's doorstep. These are the dirty areas that coaches love to see players dive into and Kunin is happy to oblige.
When evaluating Kunin, one thing that might give you pause is to look at his Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM). RAPM looks at how a player impacts a game while accounting for variables outside the player's control, such as competition strength, zone starts, back-to-back games, etc.
At even strength, Kunin's numbers don't look great. In almost all categories, he is below league average. The only place he is above league average is expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60), meaning he's good at limiting the scoring chances a team gets while he's on the ice.
In Kunin's case, I don't think the above chart tells the whole story. Remember, Kunin was new to San Jose. He was learning a new system and navigating himself through a new city. Hockey players are human, and it takes some more time to adjust than others. In Kunin's case, a larger sample size may have helped fans get a better picture of the impact he could have on the game.
Through the first 16 games (Oct. 7 to Nov. 11, 2022), Kunin had 6 points (2 G, 4 A). He averaged 1.4 points per 60 minutes. Compare that to his final 15 games before injury (Nov. 12 to Dec. 13, 2022), where Kunin had 7 points (3 G, 4 A) and averaged 1.89 points per 60 minutes.
It felt like his game was trending upward, and a full season with Kunin in the lineup would have helped fans determine if the trend was an anomaly or a better representation of Kunin as a player.
Kunin on special teams
There is one area of Kunin's game that we have not addressed yet: his play on special teams. Kunin was a key penalty killer for the Sharks until his injury forced him out of the lineup.
Kunin averaged 1:41 per game on the penalty kill and had 27 blocked shots.
He was responsible with the puck, giving away the puck six times throughout 31 games and taking the puck away from an opposing player 12 times.
Leading into December, when Kunin went down, the Sharks had one of the best penalty kills in the league, second only to the Boston Bruins. Kunin played a key role on that penalty kill.
Sharks Assistant Coach Ryan Warsofsky told San Jose Hockey Now's Sheng Peng that Kunin's willingness to learn is part of what made the penalty kill so effective.
“Luke's done a really good job picking [our PK] up. And again, he cares about it. He's always asking questions. Wants to see more video, wants to work on it. You need that. When guys take pride, it's kind of contagious to the whole group,” said Warsofsky.
Recovering from injury
The silver lining to Kunin's injury partway through last season is that he has had time to recover.
As we've watched with dozens of NHL players before him, recovering from an ACL injury is difficult and takes months. You almost have to relearn how to skate and trust your body again. Kunin will face all that this summer, in training camp and likely through the first part of next season.
Currently, he's on the right track.
"Rehab's going really well. Right on track for what we want," said Kunin in his exit interview in April. "It's a long process. Just trying to stay as positive and up as I can, but so far, so good.
"I mean, that's the goal, obviously, be ready for the start next year, but not trying to focus on that," continued Kunin. "Just one day at a time. Just trying to put good days together."
Kunin also understands that the mental aspect of recovery is just as important as the physical.
"Mentally, it's tough. I think that's just as hard as the physical part of this kind of injury, but my head's in a good spot, feeling good and excited for next year," said Kunin.
Kunin's future with the Sharks
Kunin is in the second year of the two-year contract he signed with the Sharks last summer. His AAV is $2.75 million. He will be a restricted free agent (RFA) next summer.
While you can never tell how a player will come back from an ACL injury, we will hope for the best. Even if it takes a few months for him to get back into form, Kunin is slated to be an integral part of the Sharks' lineup next season.
The Athletic's Corey Masisak has Kunin tentatively slotted in at the second line right wing spot, playing alongside Logan Couture.
If he performs as expected next season, I can see GM Grier signing him for two to three more years at a reasonable price. Players understand when a team treats them well after an injury; by all accounts, Kunin has had no complaints.
Locking him in for two to three more years would benefit the Sharks. While Kunin is projected for the top six now, he appears best suited to be a depth forward with offensive upside.
As players like William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau and whoever the team drafts this July move in, Kunin will move down the lineup. That's a good thing.
Remember, Kunin is only 25-years-old. A guy like him in a third or fourth line role a few years down the road will make San Jose a better Cup contender when the team is ready to make a push.
Editor's Note: Over the next few weeks, we will be rolling out the player reviews for the San Jose Sharks. We realize there were a lot of guys rotating into and out of the lineup and some of the key depth players were traded. As a result, Fear the Fin plans to focus on the players that are 1) still with the Sharks and 2) played 20 or more games for San Jose this season.