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Gajtka: Jake Guentzel’s Stock Dropping As Conor Sheary’s Stabilizes

It’s no longer outlandish to say Guentzel would be just as likely as Sheary to be dealt.



Jake Guentzel - Richard A. Whittaker / Icon Sportswire

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.

Downward Direction

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.

Trade Talk?

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.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter from 2016-18, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He contributes commentary and analysis here in various forms.

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Jay Baileys
Jay Baileys
4 years ago

Matt considering how cap-strapped JR is, if Gurentzel goes it would have to be a blockbuster with multiple players going right? It would be a shame because he’s so young, I hope they don’t throw all their chips in for this playoff run, to chase history, by trading away their future. That being said I realize they have to trade somebody, if they are gonna get anyone back for the stretch run.

4 years ago

Just my 2 cents, but I think 59 has more trade value than Sheary, but as noted, the salary of 59 doesn’t match what the Pens would need in return to help the team. Fortunately for 43 his career is a lil more ahead of 59 and was able to secure the 3 mil salary before 59 could. I’m sure 59 will obtain a similar deal. Although both 59 and 43 offer different skill sets, they are similar as to how how small and light they are in stature. 59 got rocked a few times from StL and we have… Read more »

4 years ago

While agree with this right now, that Guentzel might be more the odd man out, I think some of his stats are skewed. As you said, he’s been given multiple “opportunities” to play center on the third line. To me, that’s exactly why he’s been less productive. The Penguins like him better as a winger, and he plays much better in the top six, as your stats show. They made him a center out of necessity, not really to give him an opportunity in a position they don’t see him in. Also, Sheary is super streaky, so in another few… Read more »

4 years ago
Reply to  Matt Gajtka

I think they had to try 59 at center, just to explore every option, but never thought he was the answer. I thought GMJR had made it clear in the past that they see Jake as winger in the NHL, due to his size.

4 years ago

NOOOOOOOO way we trade Guentzel, WHAT DID HE DO ANYWAYS, TO GET SENT TO 4TH LINE??? Sheary falls down 14-18 times per game and is a disaster rite now. The only reason he made that defensive play yesterday is because he was already on the ice like always lol

Bill Stolze
Bill Stolze
4 years ago

Guentzel much better finisher than Sheary and likely just a sophomore slump. Trade Sheary while he has value.