Luke Kunin generates a lot of scoring chances, but it’s not always the flashy plays that put points on the board.
Growing up in St. Louis, he had plenty of people to emulate in the hockey world. He was surrounded by former NHL pros turned youth coaches such as Keith Tkachuk, Al MacInnis, Jeff Brown and Jamie Rivers, who combined to score more than 1,000 NHL goals.
Yet, when Kunin reflects on his development as a youth, it's not his coaches’ collective goal-scoring prowess that he credits.
"They were people who installed those good habits in me at a young age, and taught me how to play the game the right way," said Kunin, a standout for the Wisconsin Badgers who captained Team USA to a gold medal at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. "You're not going to score and do things in the offensive zone if you're not taking away the puck in the defensive zone and shutting the other team down."
Kunin offered advice on how to play the right way, and in doing so, how to create more scoring chances.
The cool things
The allure of scoring can be all-consuming in youth hockey. But Kunin, who was selected with the 15th pick overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2016 NHL Draft, has seen firsthand the benefits of perfecting all the areas that make goal-scoring possible.
"I was the same way," Kunin said. "You want to do the cool things you see the NHL guys do, and things like that, but developing those other skills and the little things like lifting the stick, stealing pucks, blocking shots, whether it's being good on the walls or making smart plays, just learning those other areas are going to help you score more goals.
"I know as a young, 12-year-old kid it's probably hard to agree with that or realize it, but as you get older … if you're doing the right things away from the puck, and the right things all around the rink, then you're going to get your scoring chances."
Learning all areas of the game and wanting to become a complete player is paramount.
“Obviously if you score, it's great, but as you get older, if you do some other things really well, then you know your coach will have that trust to put you out there, and be reliable in certain situations. Faceoffs are huge. If you're good on those, your coach is going to put you out at key times. You want to be a plus-player; you don't want to be out there for goals-against.”
It's something Kunin has been lauded for and a reputation he has created. He kills penalties, plays against the other teams’ top forwards, and can be called upon in any situation.
"Winning for me is the most important thing, and whether I score or not, it doesn't really matter to me," Kunin said. "I just want to win the game, and do what I can to help my team be successful."
Winning, he stressed, should not be all-or-nothing at the youth levels, and the focus should be on skill development, learning the game and most importantly, having fun.
Little battles, big impact
Kunin noted that a lot of so-called little things create big momentum for the team and get teammates fired up.
"You've got some guys who are maybe heavy forecheckers and get some momentum going for your team," Kunin said. "Maybe a huge penalty kill, blocking shots, a goalie making big saves. Just being there, being supportive on the bench, and always talking and supporting with positive things are what brings teams close together."
It’s hard work that pays off for Kunin, who also captained Team USA at the 2015 IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship. That team featured players like Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk and other rising stars.
They also won gold.
"I've been very fortunate and honored to be the captain of some great hockey teams," Kunin said. "It's been awesome. I take pride in my work ethic more than anything else. For the young kids, that's one place to start: Judge your game by how hard you work, and the things you can control. You can't always control whether you're going to score or get points, but you can always control how hard you're working, and how competitive you are.
"It's one thing that was definitely set in me at a young age, and that's why I've been in the positions I have been. That – working hard – and having fun are the most important things you have to remember. Especially as you move up levels and you want to make teams, you have to be able to do the little things that help you win games and help you be successful. The little details are what wins hockey games, and what wins championships. If kids learn that at a young age, it's going to help them in the long run.”