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  • 2019-20 Player Review: Luke Kunin took another step forward in development


    In the 2019-20 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2019-20 performances of each member of the Minnesota Wild during the regular season. Players were evaluated based on overall performance with regard to pre-season expectations and how that player performed in their particular role.

    When the Minnesota Wild drafted Luke Kunin in the first round (No. 15 overall) of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, they knew they’d be getting a tough, hard-working player capable of making plays in all three zones. Following a standout 2016-17 season for the Wisconsin Badgers, Kunin finally turned pro and began making an immediate impact while splitting time between the NHL and American Hockey League.

    Unfortunately, in a March contest against the Detroit Red Wings, Kunin tore his ACL, forcing him to miss the remainder of the 2017-18 season and a good portion of Minnesota’s 2018-19 campaign. But after an arduous recovery, Kunin returned to the ice in 2018 and eventually earned a full-time role in the Wild lineup following a successful run in the AHL. He didn’t set the world on fire for Minnesota — this was expected less than a year after suffering a significant knee injury — but he showed some occasional flashes of brilliance in his 49 NHL appearances in 2018-19, giving fans a lot of hope heading into the 2019-20 season.

    Well, the 2019-20 regular season has now come and gone, and while it’s clear that Kunin still has a lot of room to improve, there are reasons for optimism as the Wild look to piece together their future core.

    Season in review

    Statistically, Kunin’s 2019-20 season was his best statistical campaign to date. Despite missing six games in an already shortened regular season, Kunin still managed to collect a career-high 31 points with 15 goals and 16 assists (both also new personal bests) on the year. Not too bad for a player just a couple years removed from a torn ACL.

    However, while Kunin’s raw statistics were promising in 2019-20, his advanced statistics left much to be desired. In fact, Kunin ranked toward the bottom of the Wild roster for each notable advanced metric. Among all Wild skaters to play a minimum of 300 minutes at 5-on-5 in the regular season, Kunin ranked dead last in Corsi For percentage (45.35) and Expected Goals For percentage (49.86) while ranking third-to-last in Goals For per 60 minutes (2.54) and fourth-to-last in High-Danger Chances For per 60 (9.84). For those unfamiliar with advanced statistics, those numbers basically indicate that the Wild were more likely to be outshot or outscored in the minutes that Kunin was on the ice. And when the Wild were generating offense with Kunin on the ice, most of their shots were coming from the low-danger areas, which is exhibited more clearly in the graphic below.

    While high-danger scoring chances were rather uncommon for Kunin, though, he did tend to make the most out of those opportunities. Believe it or not, Kunin actually ranked fourth on the Wild roster in points per 60 (2.02) at even strength — well ahead of Zach Parise (1.75), Minnesota’s top goal-scorer, and Ryan Suter (1.36), who finished second on the team in points during the regular season.

    Kunin was also a member of one of the Wild’s more fun forward lines in 2019-20 — the GEEK Squad! Playing right wing alongside Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek, the trio played over 194 minutes together and seemed to form some solid chemistry with one another. The GEEK Squad didn’t take the world by storm, but they did manage to generate quality scoring chances somewhat regularly (55.17 HDCF% at 5-on-5) and even managed to keep pace with their opponents (50.00 GF%) at even strength.

    The GEEK Squad was disbanded around the midway point of the regular season, but seeing the trio reunited could be a good thing as Kunin, Greenway and Eriksson Ek all look to take their play to the next level in 2020-21.

    Standout moment

    Kunin made a pair of enormous plays in 2019-20 that immediately stick out as his best of the regular season. The first was his gorgeous spin-o-rama goal against the Winnipeg Jets back in January. After receiving a beautiful backhand feed from Marcus Foligno, Kunin spun 180 degrees and fired a wrister past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck to tie the game at two goals apiece with under six minutes remaining in the contest. Thanks to Kunin’s game-tying score, the Wild eventually won in overtime when Eric Staal netted a greasy goal on the power play.

    Perhaps an even more incredible play from Kunin occurred early in the season in a home contest against the Arizona Coyotes. With Minnesota leading 3-2 late in the third period, Kunin made a miraculous defensive play in the crease to keep the Coyotes down a goal, eventually leading to a big win for Minnesota. During a mad scramble in front of the net, Christian Dvorak attempted a backhand feed to an uncovered Phil Kessel on the doorstep, which should have resulted in a goal. Kunin was having none of it, though, as he flew into the scrum like a pegasus and intercepted Dvorak’s pass to virtually seal the deal for the Wild.

    Looking ahead

    In Minnesota’s play-in series against the Vancouver Canucks, expect Kunin to continue playing noteworthy minutes as a middle-six forward. In the Wild’s final game of the regular season, Kunin played on the second line with Parise and Eriksson Ek. Perhaps interim head coach Dean Evason will keep that trio together for the qualifying round. If not, a GEEK Squad reunion could be a solid alternative.

    Kunin is set to become a restricted free agent in the offseason — whenever that will be. The Wild will probably sign the 22-year-old to an inexpensive bridge deal for a year or two in order to see how he continues to develop as he reaches his prime years. It also wouldn’t be a total shock to see general manager Bill Guerin utilize him in some sort of transaction in the postseason, but that’s pure speculation. In all likelihood, Kunin will be back with the Wild for at least one more season. Thus far, he has been an adequate player for Minnesota, but as a former first-round pick, his performance in 2020-21 could end up being a major determining factor in where he stands within the organization.

    Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick.

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