The jump from juniors to college for Luke Kunin came a year earlier than most, showcasing both his skills and the difficulty players have at the next level.
After accelerating high school to play at Wisconsin, Kunin's freshman season had its share of ups and downs on a Badgers team that won a grand total of 8 games. Losses piled up. Playing against older competition took time to adjust. Rumors of a move to the OHL persisted. The former US U-18 captain did adjust, however, leading Wisconsin is scoring and being arguably its best player as one of the youngest in D1. Kunin, with a December '97 birthdate, neared a PPG pace in college that only elite scorers hit at 18.
Kunin's importance to the Badgers also showed when he was not there, shining a bright spot to a dismal team season. When he missed a game due to injury Wisconsin looked completely lost and suffered its worst defeat of the year.
Player: Luke Kunin
Team: Wisconsin (Big Ten)
Position: Left Wing/Center
Height: 6'0" Weight: 193 lbs.
Stats: 34 games, 19 goals, 13 assists, 32 points
Final NHL Central Scouting rank: 11th among North American skaters
What I Like:
-Goal scorer with a great shot
Only two 18 freshmen scored more than Kunin's 19 goals. Both, Michigan's Kyle Connor and North Dakota's Brock Boeser, were first round selections (so was the player, Colin White, tied with him for third) to put him in good company. Kunin possesses an elite scoring touch, scoring at a rate (15%) that doesn't come off as unsustainable. His hands help create opportunities mixed with a heavy shot that was capable of fooling college goaltenders.
-Showed improvement over second half
I thought Kunin played better throughout the year every time I saw him. He was more aware of his surroundings, understanding Mike Eaves' system. Being in better positions also helped pay dividends offensively. Finishing strong, Kunin had at least one point in 9 of his last 10 games. He scored a goal in six of his last seven. If not for a few saves on breakaway or multiple shots off posts he would have had more.
-Able to create offense on his own and at even strength
One of the biggest questions for Kunin entering this season was whether his stat line with the USNTDP and playing against people in his age group would hold up against older, bigger competition. That was answered with a resounding yes. He wasn't primarily scoring in special team situations. If anything, doing what he did at Wisconsin was impressive. Spending most of the season playing left wing with Grant Besse on the Badgers' only productive line, Kunin was successful without the help that other top freshmen had. While the Big Ten was offense-friendly bordering on defensive ineptitude last season, Wisconsin had a total of three players reach double digits in goals.
-Doesn't give up
In addition to playing with Type 1 Diabetes, a nation-best 9 of Kunin's goals came in either the first or last minute of a period.
What I don't like
-Lack of high-end speed
Kunin is a decent skater, but not the fastest player on the ice by any means. He'll win puck battles through his work ethic and it's not a liability. When the top players are being discussed, however, not being the fastest in a game which has been tending to favor speed is something to keep in mind.
For better or worse, the comfort level in the offensive zone as a young freshman did not translate into defense. When he found success defensively, creating a turnover or getting a partial breakaway, it seemed to happen more in transition or in the offensive zone. There were times when older players were able to muscle him off the puck, but that is also to be expected. With a year of college and time in the weight room under his belt, how Kunin improves in this facet I'm interested in seeing under the new Granato, Granato and Osiecki coaching staff.
Most mock drafts and experts have Kunin hearing his name called Friday night in the first round. There's a decent chance he goes between 12 and 25, with the St. Louis Blues at 28 being a sentimental story for Kunin, who grew up in nearby Chesterfield, MO.The biggest challenge for teams will be putting his season and weaknesses in context with the team he played.
Kunin has the tools to be an elite scorer at the next level. Like all picks, there is much room to continue to develop. He is on the right path and should get more help from a better Badger team over the next year or two. Besides those who did this year (for obvious reasons), no college hockey player that was draft eligible and put up a point per game or more over the last decade has failed to appear in an NHL game.