Jake Guentzel

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Grove: Jake Guentzel's Game Is Maturing, Exactly What The Pens Needed

Bob Grove
December 07, 2018 - 10:17 am

To say that Jake Guentzel proved himself in the 2017 and 2018 playoffs would be an understatement. He led the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs in goals (13) as the Penguins repeated as champs, and he finished fourth among post-season goal-scorers in 2018 (10) despite not reaching the third round.

Guentzel’s mark of 23 goals in his first 37 Cup games is better than Evgeni Malkin (16) or Sidney Crosby (19) or Kevin Stevens (21) and is surpassed only by Mario (32) in Penguins’ history. 

But regular season consistency eluded Guentzel in his first full season last winter, when he had 22 goals and 48 points. He went four or more games without a point five times, and he went six or more games without a goal five times, including separate droughts of 10 and 11 games. 

Heading into a contract season in 2018-19, Guentzel was aiming to produce on a more regular basis. Through 27 games as he prepares to play in Ottawa Saturday night, the 24-year-old left winger has done just that.

Guentzel had his second career three-assist game in Thursday’s 6-2 victory over the New York Islanders, giving him a six-game points streak (4-6-10) that is the longest of his regular season career. He’s got seven goals in his last 12 games, and he hasn’t gone more than two games without a point in a season that is now one-third over – despite playing three games on his off wing. 

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So there’s work yet to do, but he’s on pace for 36 goals and 76 points, which is precisely where coach Mike Sullivan would like a guy playing regularly beside Crosby. Guentzel has the ability to find open spaces and expect and finish passes from Crosby; he can use his sense of anticipation and quickness to win puck battles along the boards; and he can quickly get Crosby pucks, which he demonstrated again Thursday in helping to set up a Phil Kessel power play goal.

Which brings us to power play time or, in Guentzel’s case, the relative lack of it. Only 33 NHL forwards have more goals than he does, but he ranks 182nd in average power play time per game among the same group. That’s important to remember, as he’s doing most of his damage at even strength, where he plays more minutes than Malkin or Kessel.

It’s going to be tough for him to displace Patric Hornqvist on the first unit when Hornqvist is healthy. But with Hornqvist’s status for Saturday unknown after he left Thursday’s game early, the Penguins have in Guentzel a capable and different kind of power play weapon if they need him.

No, Guentzel is not capable of being the menace in front of the goal that Hornqvist is, robbing goaltenders of their vision, angering them with his physical play and by hammering their pads, gloves, sticks and any other piece of equipment that might be hiding the puck or otherwise getting in his way. 

But he can convert a whole different type of scoring chance from the slot, or wherever he might migrate over the course of a two-minute window. He’s simply a more creative presence and a more imaginative playmaker in that environment, and that gives opponents more to think about when they’re killing penalties.

Guentzel is also making an effort to play without the puck and is a pretty diligent back-checker. Among Pittsburgh forwards, he’s second to Malkin in takeaways and shares the team lead in blocked shots. On a nightly basis, his game is maturing – exactly what he and the Penguins needed to happen.