It’s hardly a coincidence that Jake Guentzel and the Penguins hit tonight’s home game against the Rangers on their longest win streak of the season, because their modest four-game run comes at a time when they are finally looking like themselves. They’re starting to score goals in bunches again.
The Penguins are averaging 3.7 goals per game over their last 10, but are not reverting to form solely because Sidney Crosby is doing the same with multiple points in each of his previous five games – although that’s a significant factor. While they’re also benefitting from the continued excellence of Phil Kessel, the Penguins are dangerous again thanks to Guentzel, who has seven goals in his last eight games.
The 23-year-old Guentzel, now tied for the team lead in goals with 12, is on pace to produce 35 by season’s end. To put that in perspective, only two Pittsburgh wingers have produced 35+ goals since Jaromir Jagr left the team in 2001: Chris Kunitz in 2013-14 (35) and James Neal in 2011-12 (40). But here’s where this story diverges from those examples.
Kunitz and Neal were both regular members of the first power play unit in those seasons, and both led the team in power-play goals in those seasons. Both also consistently played those seasons alongside centers with whom they worked well, Kunitz with Crosby and Neal with Evgeni Malkin.
Guentzel has started half of his games this season beside Crosby but has also started seven games with Riley Sheahan, four with Malkin (including the last two), two with Greg McKegg and another as a centerman with Kessel and Bryan Rust. And he’s not seeing regular duty with the top power-play unit, which is understandable given the production of that unit this season.
So after a slow start that included just three goals in the opening 15 games, Guentzel has played two different positions and skated with five different sets of linemates and just keeps scoring at even strength – which carries significance for the Penguins this season. Only Kessel (9) has more even-strength goals than Guentzel (7), who has scored 34 of his 41 NHL goals (playoffs included) at even strength.
Jake Guentzel Silky Mitts
As we learned when he led the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs with 13 goals in 25 games last spring, this kid is a special finisher. How special? Let’s take a look at two sets of numbers that illustrate the answer.
Guentzel has played 93 NHL games including playoffs and produced 41 goals. The only winger drafted by the Penguins to have created more in his first 93 NHL games was Rob Brown, who had 53 goals playing mostly beside a guy named Mario Lemieux (who assisted on 28 of those, 52.8 percent). It’s important to note that all of those 93 games for Brown came in the regular season (where goals are somewhat easier to come by) and at a time when goal-scoring around the league was higher than it is today.
This guy doesn’t need many chances to beat you. He led the team in shooting percentage last season at 19.8 in the regular season and 25.0 in the playoffs, and he’s leading the team again this season at 17.9. The next-closest forward, Conor Sheary, has a shooting percentage more than 3.5 points lower. Guentzel is shooting the puck more lately, taking an average of 3.1 per game over the last eight while averaging just 2.2 per game over the first 15 games.
Maximize His Finish
But there is a way to increase the number of shots he gets, and ostensibly the number of goals: play him with Crosby every night.
Crosby was Guentzel’s centerman for most of the 2017 playoffs and of course, has the best chance of getting the puck to him in the best position. Guentzel is not afraid to go to the net despite his size, which plays to Crosby’s vision of the game, and he has the kind of hockey IQ that has proved to work with Crosby.
There was an outstanding example of that in a preseason game against Buffalo. Crosby garnered a loose puck in the left circle at a time when Guentzel was below the goal line toward the left corner. Instead of heading directly to the front of the net once he saw Crosby with the puck, Guentzel instead skated behind the net and popped up at the far post. Crosby saw him and got the puck to him for an easy tap-in.
Line Stability, Please
Consistently pairing Guentzel and Crosby and then Malkin and Kessel gives Mike Sullivan the flexibility to place Hornqvist or Sheary on the right wing with Crosby (both have already played there), then Rust or perhaps Carl Hagelin on the left wing with Malkin (both have already played there). Heck, Rust has played the right side with Crosby and Guentzel this season, too.
There are lots of options. But start with Guentzel-Crosby and Malkin-Kessel and go from there. Give the kid some stability and perhaps a bit more ice time – he’s averaging 57 seconds more per night than he got last season but looks ready for more. Crosby’s current left winger, Sheary, has been held without a goal in 13 of the last 14 games.
The last time Guentzel hit the ice here in Pittsburgh to face the Rangers was Nov. 21 last season, his first NHL game. He scored twice that night. Reuniting him with Crosby tonight might provide some fitting symbolism for how far he’s come in the last 12 months.