The Pittsburgh Penguins are in a post bye-week slump, losers of three straight in an era under Mike Sullivan where they don't usually even lose two in a row in regulation. With losses, come changes. Welcome back to the NHL, Jake Guentzel.
#Pens forward lines:— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) January 16, 2017
These look about like optimal forward lines. As we opined last month, the Pens haven't been getting a lot of production from their left-wingers (outside of Conor Sheary) but Guentzel's path to the NHL seemed blocked by having veterans like Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz. Would Sullivan really play a guy like Kunitz on the 4th line? The answer for now seems like a yes.
However, another interesting thing to watch will be how much of a leash that Sullivan will afford to his talented (but still very young an inexperienced) rookie. Look at this quote Sullivan had after scratching Guentzel on for a game on December 1st.
"One of the hardest things for a young player is sustaining the level of intensity and the level of play game in and game out," coach Mike Sullivan said. "We thought, in the last game that Jake played, he didn't have quite the sustained performance that he'd shown in the first handful of games that he played.
"By no means are we discouraged by it. I think it's just part of the process that young players go through. Just the opposite. We're ecstatic with what he's brought to the table so far. We know he's a very good player and he's only going to get better."
Looking at Guentzel's 5 career NHL games, a drop-off in ice-time is pretty obvious too.
In a lot of ways, when you score 2 goals in your first ever NHL period like Guentzel did, there's no where to really go but down in your performance, scoring just two points in his last four games and turning into a sub 12-minute a night player along the way.
Guentzel's future is bright, but the vets in Hagelin and Kunitz have the coach's trust, they've proved to be good options positionally, generally make good plays with the puck and add to the play in ways a rookie like Guentzel can't do consistently. Coaches love consistency and knowing what they're going to get from players. It's not Guentzel's fault he's a rookie, but it will be very critical for him to have the type of performance that Sullivan will want to see. Surely the coaches will be watching very carefully.
With his excellent stats in the AHL (leading league in goals, 2nd in points), Guentzel has something to offer the Penguins. Whether this trip to the NHL and playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin lasts one game, five or the rest of the season, sooner or later if he keeps performing like he has he will prove himself. Tonight will be a great opportunity for him, but now we'll wait and see just how much rope and opportunity that his coach will afford him.