CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins are resigned to starting the coming season without first-line left winger Jake Guentzel.
But they don’t seem to be concerned that he’ll be missing for all that long.
The team announced last week that Guentzel had undergone surgery on his right ankle and would be re-evaluated in 12 weeks.
Monday, however, president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas — while acknowledging the perils of predicting anything pertaining to medical issues — suggested that Guentzel conceivably could be back in the lineup after as few as five games.
“Jake is projected to miss, I think, it’s (until) late October, early November, and we don’t have a lot of games in that early stretch,” Dubas said during a media availability at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “We have three the first week, then just two the second week of the season.
“So I think it’s in that third or fourth week of the season where he’s projected to be re-evaluated, then a decision will be made. We’re hopeful it goes well, of course, but we want to make sure he’s 100 percent, ready to roll when he comes back. So I would say around five games is kind of the projected number, but it’s medical, so you never want to put a lock on that because we have to always do what’s right for him.”
It is unclear whether Guentzel would be cleared to train and/or practice before he is re-evaluated.
Dubas said he anticipates Guentzel being on a 22-man Opening Night roster Oct. 10, even though he wouldn’t be in the lineup against Chicago that night.
If Dubas’ projection of when Guentzel will be able to get back in uniform proves to be prescient, the Pittsburgh Penguins would not have the option of placing him on the Long-Term Injured list, because players who end up there have to miss a minimum of 10 games and 24 days.
Presumably because the Penguins are optimistic that Guentzel will miss so few games, Dubas indicated his placeholder alongside Sidney Crosby likely will be a forward already in the organization, not one brought in via a trade or another free-agent signing.
“There are no ready-made replacements for Jake,” Dubas said. “He’s one of the better wingers in the NHL and certainly has a great chemistry with Sid. They’ve had great success together. That said, one of the fortunate parts is that it creates a major opportunity for our own young people who are here, whether that’s Alexander Nylander or Samuel Poulin.
“Also, more importantly, that was one of the things we tried to address in free agency. Whether it’s Vinnie Hinostroza, Andreas Johnsson, Rem Pitlick (acquired from Montreal in the Erik Karlsson trade) … (Radim) Zohorna, (Valtteri) Puustinen, (Joona) Koppanen, (Matt) Nieto, (Drew) O’Connor.
“All those guys who have been wanting their own opportunity, chance to go and get it. Now, the knock is there at the door. Someone has to answer it.”
He noted that Rickard Rakell, who has been playing right wing with Crosby and Guentzel, has worked on the left side with Crosby before, and that recently acquired Reilly Smith, widely expected to replace Jason Zucker on Evgeni Malkin’s left side, also could be plugged into the void created by Guentzel’s absence.
Dubas confirmed that Guentzel “ended the year with an injury,” as opposed to sustaining one while playing in Da Beauty League in Minnesota.
“The way we’d handled it, in collaboration with Jake and the medical team, was to continue to monitor, and obviously continue to skate and train on it,” he said. “But, from our view, in the team and Jake’s best interest, we didn’t want it to linger into the year.
“So when it wasn’t healing the way it was supposed to, Dr. (Dharmesh) Vyas and (head athletic trainer) Chris Stewart, in collaboration with Jake and the people on the ground in Minnesota, (Guentzel) was given a very specific methodology to go through, including trying it in some game action in the league (agent) Ben Hankinson runs … and it just wasn’t comfortable enough for him as he was getting up to the prescribed levels. So, at that point, it was decided he would have the surgical solution for it.”
That operation was performed last Wednesday. Precisely when Guentzel will resume playing — and the level at which he will be able to perform for the Pittsburgh Penguins — remain to be seen.
“We’ll miss him for the first couple games of the year,” Dubas said. “But then, he’ll be back to the Jake that we know. which I think is the best solution for all of us.”