After a sophomore slump and shuffling around the lineup, Pittsburgh Penguins left winger Jake Guentzel stormed the NHL in his third season. The Penguins 2013 third-round pick lit the lamp 40 times and helped captain Sidney Crosby score 100 points for the first time in five years. It was a break-out year for Guentzel who only prior showed that type of offensive explosion in the playoffs.
Last season Guentzel lived up to his potential as the winger worthy of playing beside Crosby. There haven’t been many of those during Crosby’s career and none before have been homegrown.
The Penguins offseason loss of Phil Kessel via trade will leave a hole in their lines and the team will be short of offensive production. They will need Guentzel to replicate his performance.
In total, Guentzel scored 76 points (40g, 36a) and was the perfect Robin to Crosby’s Batman. And there was a delicious, sugar rush inducing triple chocolate milkshake with a chocolate bar included. The Penguins also added a sweetener to Guentzel’s season when the inked the winger to a five-year, $30 million contract.
And therein might be the biggest challenge for Guentzel to repeat his breakout season; money changes things.
Previous Crosby sidecar Conor Sheary scored 53 points in 61 games with Crosby in 2016, then slumped after signing a three-year, $9 million deal. He admitted to PHN during the late season 2017 that perhaps the contract added pressure which he didn’t expect. During locker cleanout day last April, Bryan Rust wouldn’t discount the adverse effects of his new four-year, $14 million contract.
It’s probably not the worst problem Guentzel will ever deal with; if he needs help spending $6 million (minus escrow, of course), he should have plenty of help.
Guentzel has not yet proved he can succeed without Crosby, though the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t appear to have any inclination to find out. Last season, Guentzel played less than 200 minutes at 5v5 without Crosby. In that limited sample size, Guentzel posted a porous 41% Corsi, had only 43% of the scoring chances and was outscored 13-6.
Those are brutal ratios, and if Crosby were to miss significant time this season, Guentzel would be the most affected.
However, banking on Crosby’s durability Guentzel could further benefit from the Penguins addition of Alex Galchenyuk who could begin the season on the top line. Galchenyuk could and should provide superior finish on the right side of the line than Dominik Simon or Byran Rust, who spent significant time as the top line RW last season.
Prediction: Guentzel will be unphased by his hefty contract, and Sidney Crosby will remain healthy. Guentzel had to prove his second-season slump was the aberration, and he succeeded.
In a season marked by significant slumps including Rust’s one goal in his first 29 games, Phil Kessel didn’t score a goal for more than 16 games, and Patric Hornqvist went more than 17 games without a marker, Guentzel remained consistent. He scored a steady 13, 14, and 13 points in November, December, and January, respectively. He continued a healthy pace all season including 16 points in March.
His game still has space to grow, as well. Head coach Mike Sullivan would not mind a little more physicality, too, “His game is best when he plays stiff,” Sullivan said.
Guentzel also helped the Penguins second power-play unit to be an effective unit. This season, Guentzel could or should see some time on the top power-play unit. Sullivan joked in the playoffs about the Penguins’ embarrassment of riches regarding establishing a top power-play.
Otherwise, Guentzel blends well with Crosby because he plays with speed and creativity. The son of a hockey coach, his hockey IQ stands above most contemporaries. Guentzel should add a few more assists this season, especially with top unit power-play time but 40 goals is a lofty number.
35 goals, 50 assists. 85 points.