Through 3 games in the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, a name joins Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at the top of the scoring leaders (and, okay Alex Radulov but that doesn't exactly fit this story). It's rookie Jake Guentzel.
Guentzel's ascendancy is no shocker to Penguins fans over the course of the season who have seen him come in and make a splash from the very beginning. But that's jumping ahead on the story a little bit.
The Jake Guentzel story starts as a kid. With a player so smart and heady on the ice, of course it does. Guentzel's father, Mike, was an assistant at powerhouse University of Minnesota from 1994-2008. Lil Jake was a stick boy for the team, and hey, guess who played in the 2005-06 team but a young Phil Kessel (putting a great draft year to be selected 5th overall by the Bruins). From NHL.com:
"It was pretty special," Jake said with a smile. "Being a stick boy when Kessel was there is something that is kind of fun now. It only made me want to play hockey that much more."
Now, years later, Jake Guentzel is playing with both Kessel and Cullen in the NHL for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I recruited Matt Cullen [who ended up going to St. Cloud State]...and recruited Phil, and now he's playing on the same team as them," Mike Guentzel said. "It was nice, I think when Jake walked in the locker room, there was a name recognition. And certainly those guys knew him and looked after him, and that was great too."
Before he could make it into an NHL locker room, he would have to be drafted, and drafted he was by the Penguins in the 3rd round in 2013. There's a bit of serendipity in his selection too, as Pittsburgh got that pick in the deal that sent former first rounder Joe Morrow (plus a 5th rounder in 2013) for rental Brenden Morrow and the 3rd.
Upgrading from the 5th to 3rd round in that draft proved, in hindsight, to be the most impactful part of the trade. Morrow played through a hurt knee and wasn't much of a factor in the playoffs for Pittsburgh, and Morrow was quickly flushed out of the Dallas system in a trade to Boston. That 5th rounder that Dallas got ended up being someone named Matej Paulovic who played 4 years in the USHL system before going back and playing in Slovakia this season, very unlikely to make any NHL impact.
Guentzel, however, persisted. After being drafted he spent three seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Every seasons his stats showed progression goals went from 9 his freshman year to 14 to 19 his junior year. Similarly, points ramped up from 34 to 39 to 46. He led his team in points his sophomore and junior season before signing a pro contract with Pittsburgh just last spring.
Joining the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Penguins for the rest of the season, Guentzel started out pretty fairly with 6 points (2g+4a) in 11 regular season games. Not bad for jumping into a league against men and having to earn minutes and the coach's respect on a top AHL team.
But it would be the playoffs were Guentzel would really stand out - scoring 14 points (5g+9a) in 10 games, leading the AHL Pens in all three categories.
Mark Recchi was high on Guentzel too last summer:
"His hockey IQ is off the charts," said player development coach Mark Recchi. "He competes like crazy. He plays center, he plays wing — very versatile. "Where do you see him? I think on the safe side, project him as a top-nine (forward). On the high side, a top-six, for sure."
Those words ended up coming true even sooner than Recchi might have believed. Guentzel was assigned to the AHL out of training camp but dominated that league - scoring 42 points (21g+21a) in 33 games before being called up to the NHL for good in January. Despite not playing in the AHL for basically half the season Guentzel was still good enough to be named to the AHL All-Rookie team.
Before making the NHL for good, he got his first chance to play in a game on November 21st against the Rangers. Guentzel popped immediately (a theme for him) when he scored a goal in his first game on his first shot.
There's nothing quite like your first NHL goal. pic.twitter.com/JXHf8AP9eh— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 22, 2016
It's a good day to be a Guentzel. pic.twitter.com/cp8SrHVkUc— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 22, 2016
As nice as that was, Guentzel would score ANOTHER goal in the same period of that game, providing another unreal moment and helping the Pens to victory.
Overall, it was a great NHL season for Guentzel too - scoring 33 points (16g+17a) in 40 games and eventually cementing himself on the wing of Sidney Crosby. Despite being crushed and concussed on Mar 17, he would return for 5 more regular season games and score 5 more goals, clearly in great form for the regular season.
And while the rookies in Toronto get a lot of press (for good reason) in a points/game rate Guentzel was every bit their peer this season. Below's a look of NHL rookie scoring, minimum 10 games.
Now, Guentzel is the talk of the playoffs after his hat-trick in Game 3, the last goal coming in overtime, no less. Guentzel's come a long way from fetching sticks for Phil Kessel back in Minnesota a decade ago, and with as quickly as he's advanced and great as he's been every step of the way, it should be a great journey for Penguins fans to see what this young man has up his sleeve next.