Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jake Guentzel is entering his contract year. Millions of dollars are stake. It’s Guentzel’s third professional year and the final year of his entry-level contract, which means next summer he will be a restricted free agent and in line for a payday. But just how fat his wallet gets will be determined by a how many times he lights the lamp and if he can improve his play from last season.
Given the NHL’s aversion or outright refusal to tender RFA offer sheets, the Penguins will not be challenged for Guentzel’s services. Guentzel’s regular season performance will determine if he gets top-six forward money or a team friendly paycheck.
In the first two years of his NHL career, there has been a big difference between regular season Guentzel and playoff Guentzel. The playoff version has been a killer. Last season, Guentzel racked up 21 points, including 10 goals in 12 games. In the 2017 Stanley Cup run, Guentzel marked 13 goals and 21 points in 25 games.
Post-season Guentzel plays a dynamic game, is aggressive in dirty areas and is solid defensively. Not only does Guentzel finish the dishes from Sidney Crosby, but he also sets up Crosby, too.
Regular season Guentzel looks like playoff Guentzel, but only in the mirror. In the regular season, Guentzel is not a point-per-game player and last season he wasn’t even a .6 points-per-game player. He was 28th in scoring among left wings. Guentzel scored 22 goals and tallied 48 points, but the Penguins coaches were asking for more. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, in classic Sullivan-speak, publicly encouraged Guentzel to play “stiff” on the wall and contribute more offensively.
Sullivan has become a master of putting a positive spin on criticisms, so comments become encouragement.
There is a huge salary difference for left-wingers who score in the 40’s and those who score in the mid 50’s and 60 points.
Jake Guentzel Comparables
Guentzel, 24, has several comparables past and present, including former Carolina Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner who received a six-year, $34.35 million contract from now-Penguins GM Jim Rutherford in 2012. Skinner scored 44 points in 64 games as a 22-year old to score the deal with a $5.725 AAV.
In the last couple seasons, several players in Guentzel’s atmosphere have received contracts. Detroit left wing Anthony Mantha and New York Rangers forward Vladislav Namestnikov also scored 48 points last season. Namestnikov, 25, signed a two-year bridge deal with a $4 million annual cap hit. Mantha, 23, also got a two-year bridge deal but for only $3.3 annually. In 2016, Tampa Bay forward Alex Killorn scored 40 points (14g, 26a) in 81 games and Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman rewarded him with a seven-year, $31.15 million contract ($4.45 AAV).
If Guentzel has another lackluster season, he could be in the same $4 million, bridge-deal range. However, if Guentzel fills the net like the top-shelf sniper, the payday will increase substantially.
In 2015-16, then-Ottawa left wing Mike Hoffman upped his offensive output from 48 points to 59 points (29g, 30a). The Senators handed Hoffman a four-year, $20.75 payday ($5.187 AAV). St. Louis wing Jaden Schwartz scored 64 points in 2014-15. Injuries cost him most of 2015-16 but the 24-year-old inked a five-year, $26.750 million deal ($5.350 AAV).
On the top end of the contract scale, Winnipeg winger Nikolaj Ehlers popped for 64 points (25g, 39a) in 2016-17 after scoring only 39 points in the previous season. He signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with Winnipeg. Ehlers was 21-years-old at the time of signing but came with a high-draft choice pedigree.
Guentzel, like the rest of the Penguins, cannot afford to coast through another regular season picking up bad habits. The Penguins are relying on Gentzel to be one of the primary sources of offense. Another 48-point season would be a disappointment and if the Penguins are disappointed, Guentzel may share that feeling next summer. But, if he taps his full potential, he’ll be worth more than $5 million per season.
Since the Penguins have not been shy about signing their own, players such as Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary received multi-year deals, Guentzel has a big opportunity for both the team and his bank account.