The events Sunday in St. Louis exemplified the recent trajectory for two young Penguins wingers.
Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel began the eventual 4-1 win at Scottrade Center flanking Riley Sheahan, but when Mike Sullivan didn’t care for his team’s offensive pressure in the first period, it was Sheary who got the call to join Sidney Crosby, while Guentzel was shunted to the fourth line.
The final accounting?
Guentzel received just 9:01 of ice time, a season low that was less than every skater except two: His makeshift linemates Carter Rowney and Ryan Reaves. That trio received one shift in the third period before getting stapled to the pine.
Sheary didn’t finish the game with Crosby, but he was trusted for regular playing time all the way to the end, rewarding Sullivan’s confidence by deflecting a pass that gave Sheahan a clean chance with under seven minutes to play.
Not to make too much of one game — Guentzel could easily be back in a plum spot Tuesday against Ottawa — but it’s been a season laden with speed bumps for two players who’ve held darling status with the fan base at various times.
The men who finished the Stanley Cup Final on Crosby’s wings have endured their struggles in 2017-18. And there were legitimate reasons for high expectations.
Among players who skated in more than 20 games last regular season, Sheary had the highest rate of even-strength points per 60 minutes in the NHL (3.03), with Guentzel ranking second (2.90). The 2017 playoffs were much kinder to Guentzel, who scored a league-best 13 goals in 25 postseason games, but Sheary’s mere seven points last spring didn’t completely squelch optimism about his continued strong production.
But after signing a three-year contract worth $9 million last summer, the 25-year-old Sheary has sunk to 19 points in 57 games, or 1.47 even-strength points per 60. Those are pretty much third-line numbers. Maybe that’s what Sheary is.
As for Guentzel, he got hot in mid-November with seven goals in seven games, helping him to a half-point-per-game pace in his first full NHL season (28 points in 56 appearances). At even strength, though, the 23-year-old has just 17 points in 53 games.
Furthermore, the Penguins’ coaching staff has given Guentzel a couple of opportunities to stick at center this season, but the plug has been pulled after a handful of games on both occasions. Any chance of Guentzel helping to bolster the depth at center appears to have vaporized.
Versatility in Question
Indeed, both players have some improvements to make as the backstretch curves into the homestretch. There might not be a ‘Sid and the Kids’ reunion in the works, but at least Guentzel and Sheary can get back to a level that makes them viable skaters no matter the game situation.
At least for now, Sheary seems closer to reclaiming that status. Always a tenacious forechecker in spite of his 5-foot-8 frame, he can be guilty of too much ambition when simplicity is prudent. However, he appears to be able to adapt to Sheahan’s grinding game better than Guentzel.
Just in terms of Corsi For percentage, or share of shot attempts, the Penguins are at 56 percent when Sheary and Sheahan skate together, compared to 46 percent for the Guentzel-Sheahan combo. In fact, since making the NHL midway through last season, Guentzel is a negative possession player with anyone other than Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
We could interpret these results in multiple ways.
Perhaps Sullivan simply must play Guentzel with a star center to get anything from him. Or maybe Guentzel, who has been lauded for his on-ice smarts since his Penguins debut, need to find a way to play bigger when not getting top-six opportunities.
This being February, of course there are trade-related implications to this situation.
If Jim Rutherford is hunting big game this month, he’ll likely have to dump some salary to stay under the cap. Carrying a $3 million average annual value (AAV), Sheary would be a logical inclusion in any deal that brings a significant contract to Pittsburgh. (The Penguins have less than $1 million under the cap with which to work.)
However, Guentzel’s massive playoff performance last year is likely still in many general managers’ minds when they talk trade with Rutherford. Guentzel is making less than $800,000 in this season and next, before earning restricted free agency. He probably can’t anchor a scoring line, but he’s shown the ability to both think and skate with elite playmakers.
With the way Sullivan likes to shuffle wingers up and down the line chart, Sheary seems to have more of the Swiss-army quality that aids such an approach. On the other hand, Guentzel has shown a superior finishing touch and can produce on the power play.
There are merits to both players, but it’s no longer outlandish to say Guentzel would be the more likely of the two to leave. That wasn’t the case a couple months ago.
Ideally, the Penguins would be able to wait out the hiccups and let young players marinate. The urgency of a three-peat attempt might preclude that.
For more on this topic and several others, check out our latest PHN Postgame Video following the win over the Blues.