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Jake Guentzel Market Value; Should Penguins Trade or Sign?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Jake Guentzel

The Pittsburgh Penguins have other pressing matters, chiefly among them getting under the NHL’s $83.5 million salary cap by the end of training camp in early October. It seems this week could be the Penguins’ salary cap crossroads with Drew O’Connor’s arbitration case and their second and final buyout window.

After Penguins’ president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas leaps this tall building, the Penguins’ near future will take precedence in Jake Guentzel.

Guentzel, who turns 29 in October, will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and the clock began ticking on a new deal for Sidney Crosby’s 40-goal-scoring sidecar on July 1.

Salary cap space will not be a problem next summer. The Penguins have about $69 million committed to 14 skaters and goalie Tristan Jarry. No pending big-money deals are waiting to vacuum-clean the Penguins cap wallet … except Guentzel.

The first central question is Guentzel’s salary worth.

Current deals don’t offer a concrete guide because next summer could be a wild time after Pandora’s box opens with the salary cap spike by a few or more million dollars. NHL GMs are not known for their restraint or logical thinking as the free-agent frenzy begins, and GMs have recently begun spending a dime when they only have a nickel.

But as a rough guide, former Hart Trophy-winning winger Taylor Hall earns $6 million for two more seasons. So, too, does Nikolaj Ehlers. Even if he lacks the physical skills and highlight reel abilities, statistically, Guentzel compares well with Columbus Blue Jackets winger Patrik Laine, who makes $8.7 million.

Guentzel will most likely command a significant raise on his current $6 million cap hit, and it’s hard to argue Guentzel hasn’t earned his keep. He’s scored 40 goals in two of the five seasons under his expiring six-year deal. He notched 36 markers last season, scored 23 goals in the 56-game COVID season, and 20 goals in 2019-20 when he suffered an ugly shoulder injury in Game 39.

A $7 million AAV might be a victory for the Penguins, but one that costs them a longer term.

Throughout his career, Guentzel has filled the net, and there’s little doubt he’ll continue to do so in the near future. Given the future cap escalation, Guentzel getting between $7-8 million over another five to six years seems to be a workable range.

However, the question from this keyboard is Guentzel’s long-term viability as a prime goal scorer. Will the 5-foot-10 winger, whom coach Mike Sullivan admits isn’t the fastest or biggest, hold up as age catches up?

Whether the game continues to get faster or the Vegas Golden Knights Stanley Cup victory launches a battle of the bulk, Guentzel will slip behind either trend.

Can he maintain a 30-40 goal pace as the game gets bigger or faster and he gets older?

I have a lot of doubts about that. Of course, in fairness, five years ago, I also wrote that Guentzel’s contract was a risk and former GM Jim Rutherford overpaid Guentzel by a million or so. My track record on projecting Guentzel’s future growth isn’t sterling.

Guentzel’s age most likely makes this the last time he’ll get an opportunity for a big-time contract. Players cannot waste that opportunity.

Even with worries about age catching him more quickly, he also won’t drop off a cliff because his speed is gone. Guentzel gets by on hockey smarts and a willingness to occasionally take punishment to make a play. Those attributes won’t go away. If Guentzel signed another six-year deal, he could reasonably be expected to be in peak form for at least two-thirds of the deal.

The Penguins organization has not made many hard decisions over the last several years. They re-signed Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to 35+ contracts. Winger Bryan Rust got a five-year deal, and Jeff Carter got a two-year contract. Even goalie Tristan Jarry was re-upped.

The top of the lineup has been largely intact over the last few years, except for Jason Zucker and Brian Dumoulin, who were replaced with equal and compatible players, Reilly Smith and Ryan Graves, respectively. Those are the biggest changes over the last few years.

In the term and money required to extend Guentzel’s stay in Pittsburgh, there seems to be an incongruence between Guentzel’s long-term market value and the Penguins’ needs but one that cannot be avoided.

The answer to signing Guentzel is a hesitant yes. The Penguins cannot predictably replace the offensive Guentzel brings, and barring a hard line drawn in the sand over top-dollar compensation, the Penguins can and should look elsewhere for those foundational changes.

Will Guentzel be the victim of bad timing, or will Dubas commit to Guentzel now and worry about the future later? Therein lies the conflict. The hunch here is that Guentzel will be around for a long time because, despite the potential returns of a Penguins trade, winning now is still more important, and next summer, they can easily afford $7-8 million.