Tom Kuhnhackl has only played 12 AHL games and he has already endured as much as a player who has played 12 years.
The 21-year-old winger from Germany began his North American career in 2010, soon after being drafted by Pittsburgh in the fourth round. Things started off on track, as Kuhnhackl posted 39 goals and 68 points in his first year of juniors in 2010-11.
But over the next two seasons, things went a bit haywire for the high-scoring prospect.
The following season — his second with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League, Kuhnhackl was traded to Niagara, earned a 20-game suspension for a hit and suffered a knee injury that brought the year to an end.
And then came last season — one in which Kuhnhackl hoped to start fresh with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
But the hope faded pretty quickly when Kuhnhackl was sent to Wheeling to start the season before being recalled later in October.
And that’s when things started to look up again. Kuhnhackl scored the game-winner in the eighth round of a shootout to beat Binghamton and then scored his first two goals games later in a Penguins win over Albany.
But then Kuhnhackl saw another season derailed when he injured his shoulder in November and had season-ending surgery.
“The last couple years haven’t been good for me,” Kuhnhackl said. “In the OHL I had injuries, got traded and got suspended. Then last year, my first year pro, I got injured again. You never know what’s going to happen.”
That’s why Kuhnhackl is cherishing every game he plays in this season for the Penguins. He had a good showing in the Penguins rookie tournament in September — his first game action in 10 months, impressed at Pittsburgh’s training camp and found himself skating on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s top line in the season opener.
Considering that Kuhnhackl spent most of last season watching his teammates play and practice, every shift this season is a blessing.
“It’s just nice to be with the team, to be here and to play hockey again,” Kuhnhackl said. “Last year was tough, but I stayed positive and just thought about playing hockey again.”
There were a couple benchmarks to Kuhnhackl’s recovery over the summer. When he got the green light to resume training and skating, Kuhnhackl quickly took to the ice and the gym.
The games in the rookie tournament allowed him to regain his timing, and the extended stay in Pittsburgh’s training camp gave Kuhnhackl a much-needed confidence boost.
And then came the season opener where Kuhnhackl skated on the top line with Andrew Ebbett and Chris Conner, which finished for a combined two goals and three points.
Kuhnhackl called it an “honor” to play on the first line and said things will continue to improve as he and his linemates build chemistry.
He’s also flattered to be on Pittsburgh’s radar — evident by the extended time in training camp.
But if Kuhnhackl does suffer a disappointment in one form or another this season, he firmly stats it’s nothing he can’t handle.
“It can’t get any worse now than what I’ve been through — suspension, trade, injuries and surgery. I’m prepared for everything,” Kuhnhackl said. “I don’t have any pressure on myself but to play hockey and help the team win.”