Jake Guentzel took the Penguins by storm last season. His production at left wing since being called up has well exceeded expectations. Unfortunately, an injury to Carter Rowney, the inability of Greg McKegg, and Mike Sullivan’s desire for the “12 best forwards on the ice” has put the Penguins in a situation which Guentzel was pressed into the third line center duty.
After Wednesday night’s loss to Anaheim, the Guentzel-to-center experiment could be over.
After a pair of defensive miscues Wednesday, the Penguins inserted recently called up depth forward J.S. Dea at center, and elevated Riley Sheahan to the third pivot.
While playing the left wing during the first two and a half months of the season, Guentzel was the 4th most offensively productive Penguin. However, he has zero even strength points since Rowney’s injury.
Guentzel is tied for 4th on the team in goals scored, but none (even strength) since having the center responsibility on the 3rd line, his plus/minus is at zero and his faceoff percentage is just below 50% during this time, as well. The numbers say that Guentzel was treading water and did just enough for the Penguins to get by.
The Penguins coaches also routinely moved Guentzel to wing in the third period, and intermittently double shifted Sidney Crosby between Guentzel’s linemates. Not exactly a vote of confidence for a position which is supposed to be defense-first.
The blank spaces next to Guentzel in the final box score could be unnerving when considering his impact in the playoffs last year. However, numbers aren’t everything and it is extremely difficult to transition from wing to center on the fly.
Jake Guentzel’s Game
The natural speed and flow of the game at the NHL level is one that can cause fits for those who make this switch. In which can cause fits for centers, since they are responsible for defending and occupying the most ice.
Early in this new role, Guentzel had the tendency to gravitate toward the point in the defensive zone during “D-to-D” passes. The act allows a third forward to gain open ice for offensive opportunities. Although this issue seemed to be improving, he did the same Wednesday night and it cost the Penguins.
Guentzel also has the tendency to patronize below the goal line. It’s not an issue to defend behind the net if the third forward is occupying space in the trapezoid, but completing a check and being out of position is a problem.
Guentzel doesn’t always make the best decisions with the puck, as well. Like the opening goal against the Boston Bruins.
The goal allowed is not his fault; Ryan Spooner sneaks behind Oleksiak while Hunwick was crashing to the middle of the ice to prevent the developing play. Guentzel’s position was spot-on; the center’s job in that situation is to park in the shooting lane. Although the initial decision to pass up the far boards is what started the scoring play.
Breaking down the film, Guentzel gains control of the isolated puck and passes on his forehand up the left wing wall. Conor Sheary is the intended recipient, who has two Bruins between him and the puck. It is easy to identify the turnover and led to a Bruins goal.
Guentzel panicked and made the comfortable play on the forehand instead. Meanwhile, if Guentzel worked the backhand to open space, one of two players would gain possession of the puck. Phil Kessel or the opposite side Bruins defenseman.
Can Pens Win?
It isn’t perfect, but the Guentzel project has worked at times. Guentzel’s play at center in the three zones isn’t perfect and he doesn’t seem to excel in any one area of the ice. However, he was treading water and the Penguins are starting to win again.
Guentzel’s skill set is top-notch on the wing and Riley Sheahan has fit in nicely on the 4th line. It’s becoming more obbious, another center is a must if the Penguins want to win a 3rd consecutive title.