Jake Guentzel is about to get paid. Of course, his paychecks will keep coming but beginning next year, if he took the cash option delivery would require a few armed guards with briefcases handcuffed to their wrist. Thursday, Guentzel signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins which will keep the left winger in Pittsburgh through 2024.
For context, Sidney Crosby will be 36 years-old and Evgeni Malkin will be 37-years-old when the deal expires. Guentzel, Olli Maatta, Juuso Riikola, Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon and Matt Murray will all be a ripe 30-years old.
“He’s huge for us. Such a smart player. Puts up a lot of points and a big part of our team. He’s a great kid,” said Murray.
Murray had to be told the pair are the same age. No joke. Though all laughed afterward.
That pair is quite different. Murray has always seemed like a grizzled veteran; serious and quiet. Guentzel doesn’t say much to the media but when we’re not shoving microphones and camera phones in his face, Guentzel is frequently seen in the locker room chilling with teammates and usually laughing.
In current NHL money and production, Guentzel’s deal is in the right zip code. Toronto gave 22-year-old William Nylander a long-term deal with a cap hit of about $6.9 million after Nylander produced back-to-back 61 point seasons. Guentzel scored only 48 points last season.
Jeff Skinner, who has been a perennial 50 to 60 point scorer in the NHL is reportedly asking for $8 million plus in Buffalo.
It’s a fair deal for the Penguins, but there remains one unanswered question which could eventually make the deal a bad one: Is Guentzel able to score without Sidney Crosby?
Long term, this deal is a gamble but the Penguins had little choice. This season, Guentzel has popped 33 points (15g, 18a) in 37 games, primarily beside Crosby where he has skated for most of his career excluding the failed third line center experiment, last season.
Since the Penguins are in win-now mode, they had to keep the winger who lights up playoff scoresheets like Clark W. Griswald’s house at Christmas.
The issue is Jake Guentzel has not shown an ability to score at a premier rate with anyone else but Sidney Crosby.
Since the beginning of 2016-17, he and Crosby have played about 1411 minutes together. He has only played about 843 minutes without Crosby.
With Crosby, Guentzel is on the ice for 55 percent of scoring chances and helps to produce .56 scoring chances per one minute played.
Without Crosby, Guentzel is on the ice for about 47 percent of chances and helped produce about .47 scoring chances per minute. Guentzel’s goals-for is also underwater (49 percent) without Crosby.
The question if Guentzel can score without Crosby doesn’t need to be asked for some time. Crosby certainly isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Though as painful as it may be to contemplate, Crosby will someday age. And he won’t be the same player.
And then what? Can Guentzel carry the line? Can Guentzel produce offense independently of Sidney Crosby?
Guentzel’s offensive ability and hockey smarts will go a long way, but to be worthy of the $6 million annual cap hit, Guentzel will need to keep his point totals well above 50 points and he may eventually need to do that without Sidney Crosby, or at least the better version of Crosby.
And therein lies the great gamble. The Penguins are betting yes Guentzel can score with centers, despite no evidence. If the answer is no, Guentzel is unlikely to finish his term in Pittsburgh. Fortunately for all involved, it will be a few years before the question is asked.
For two or three more years, Guentzel and Crosby have another Stanley Cup to chase. And that is what the deal is all about.