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This is a huge year for Jake Guentzel

Guentzel’s third NHL season has major implications.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

When it comes down to dollars and cents, Jake Guentzel might be one of the most valuable — and important — players on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster this season.

Not only is he going to be a top-line winger, most likely riding shotgun alongside Sidney Crosby once again, but he is going to do it on the final year of an entry-level contract that pays him just a little more than $700,000 for the season. Whatever his level of production ends up being, he is going to be one of the most productive and cost-efficient players on the roster. He is almost certainly going to outperform that salary.

Players like Guentzel are essential to a championship team because of what they mean under a salary capped system.

When you have Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up more than 40 percent of your salary cap space by themselves, it is essential to have young, cheap talent that still offers top-line production spread throughout the lineup to make the whole thing work. And Guentzel has most certainly been one of those players the past two years, especially when it comes to his postseason performance where he’s averaged more than a point per game and scored more goals (23) than any other player in the NHL. Alex Ovechkin, for what it’s worth, is second with 20. That is how good Guentzel has been in the playoffs.

All of this makes him vitally important to the Penguins’ success.

This is also the last year that Guentzel will be making under a million dollars against the cap and be that big of a steal. After this season Guentzel will be a restricted free agent and in need of a new contract. What that contract will look like remains to be seen (though we can certainly guess), and it lot of it will probably depend on what he does this season.

All of that together makes this a massive year for him, not only because of what he means to the Penguins, but because of what this season could mean for his bank account.

But for all of his early success in the NHL, and for all of the importance he carries for the Penguins, I still feel like he is a bit of a mystery in terms of what type of player he is going to be.

Overall, the numbers speak for themselves. He has been a monster for the Penguins in the biggest games, and he has simply flat out produced. In his first full season of NHL duty a season ago he finished as one of the top-scorers on the team and once again helped carry the offense in the playoffs.

But there were times last year where I found myself hearing Guentzel’s name announced after scoring a goal, hearing just how many goals he had scored, and saying to myself, “I had no idea he had that many goals this year.”

It almost seemed to be a very, let’s say, quiet, 22-goal season. Still ... 22 goals is 22 goals, and his production at this point in his career is about as much as you could have ever possibly hoped for from a third-round draft pick.

But where does his career go from here?

In an effort to get at least somewhat of an idea I fired up the Hockey-Reference database and tried to find players whose careers started off similar to Guentzel’s and what they ended up becoming. Usually you can get a sense for what a player will be based on their early career. Players that put up huge numbers in their first and second years tend to go on to be top-line players. Players that don’t score a lot of goals early, probably won’t go on to be elite goal-scorers. So on, and so on.

With that in mind, the criteria I searched for: Players over the past 20 seasons whose first two years in the NHL came between the ages of 21 and 23, who had played in at least 100 games during those two years, and averaged between 0.60 and 0.70 points per game (Guentzel is right in the middle of those two numbers at 0.66).

It produced a fascinating list.

The list:

  • Chris Drury
  • Devin Setoguchi
  • Jake Guentzel
  • T.J. Oshie
  • Chris Stewart
  • Jussi Jokinen
  • Henrik Zetterberg
  • Drew Stafford
  • Vladimir Tarasenko

There are two superstars on there in Zetterberg and Tarasenko.

There are excellent top-line players in Drury and Oshie.

Then there are a few players in Setoguchi, Stewart, Jokinen, and Stafford whose development kind of peaked at that point and never really continued an upward trajectory.

That wide range of, let’s call them comps, seems perfectly fitting for Guentzel because his career really could go in any direction at this point.

Zetterberg and Tarasenko probably represent an unrealistic ceiling. Even though I could envision a scenario in which his production continues to increase, and maybe even spikes, he is definitely not the all-around player that Zetterberg was and he is not quite the goal-scoring assassin that Tarasenko is.

But there’s nothing wrong with being Chris Drury or T.J. Oshie, and while none of the other four would qualify as busts or bad players, the Penguins would probably be extremely disappointed if Guentzel’s career followed a similar path.

Then there is the elephant in the room here: The Sidney Crosby factor.

While Guentzel hasn’t played exclusively alongside Crosby throughout his career, he has spent a significant amount of his 5-on-5 ice time alongside an NHL legend that has a history of making everyone around him better and more productive. Over the first two years of Guentzel’s career, including playoffs, more than 62 percent of his 5-on-5 ice-time has gone next to Crosby.

During that time the two have been dynamic and dominant, no matter who the third part of that line is.

It’s when Guentzel has been away from Crosby that things have sputtered a bit. He is only a 47 percent Corsi player during that time away from Crosby while the Penguins have been badly outchanced.

I don’t want to say Guentzel’s early success is only a Crosby-driven phenomenon because he has still produced some points away from him, but Crosby has certainly helped.

These are things we are going to learn about Guentzel this season: What sort of step he takes in his development, how much of his production is Crosby-based versus what he is able to produce on his own, and how all of that translates into a new contract for him after this season.

So in short ... yeah. It is a huge year for Jake Guentzel.