Through 30 games of the 2019-20 season, one of the best story-lines for the Pittsburgh Penguins has been the consistent and high level play of Jake Guentzel. The winger is already a known quantity and a star player after famously leading the NHL goals in the playoffs in 2017 when he burst on the scene. Then of course he had a 40 goals last season that culminated in signing a long-term, big money contract extension.
Guentzel’s picked it up and even found a way to improve other those great heights; he leads the team in points (31), goals (16) among other categories, putting him on pace for career highs in both categories.
This season has also been unique for Guentzel and the Pens, with an injury to Sidney Crosby giving Guentzel almost equal samples now playing with the captain and now with Evgeni Malkin.
Both samples show great production for the winger and the star center.
Guentzel and Malkin have produced even more than the typical pairing with Crosby.
As you can note in the columns above, this isn’t power play driven either, with just a handful of points there. It’s mostly even strength work on display, like the 14 ESP Guentzel has in his 14 game sample in the last month of being centered by Malkin.
Malkin being on an absolute tear this last month shows a glimpse of what he can be capable of with high-end players. The Pens have long had an issue of finding enough quality wings to keep up with the generational centers. It hasn’t been for a lack of trying though, with the team acquiring players like James Neal and Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist who have had productive turns in Pittsburgh.
The Neal situation is one that draws a parallel to modern times with Guentzel. When Neal was traded to Pittsburgh in February 2011 it was a move seen largely to eventually pair the goal scoring winger with Crosby, who was out at the time with his concussion/neck injury. Crosby’s injury ended up lingering and affecting him for most of the calendar 2011 year, so Neal was left to play on a line with Malkin. The two had great success in 2011-12 season, Neal scored 40 goals, Malkin 50.
When Crosby was ready to return, the Malkin+Neal was too productive to be split. Is the same happening now with Guentzel?
That would be tough to say, since the Crosby+Guentzel has so much history on it’s own, with 2,300+ 5v5 minutes together in the past few seasons. Unlike then when Crosby+Neal never really had a chance to take hold before chemistry was found with Malkin, Crosby+Guentzel is a very known and very positive pairing.
Either way though, the Pens can’t lose. Put Guentzel with Crosby and you’ve got a wonderful line that’s going to control puck possession, pile up scoring chances and also goals. Place Guentzel with Malkin and you’ve got a wonderful line that’s going to do those very same wonderful items for the team.
What the Pens could really use is cloning Jake Guentzel so he could play on both lines.
Unfortunately with the limits of things like “science” and “technology” and “morality” that is not feasible. So Pittsburgh should do the next best thing and acquire more talent.
Taylor Hall is known to be on the trading block. Tyler Toffoli is also an impending unrestricted free agent as well. Both of these players are young enough where trading significant assets at least makes sense.
The need is there too, with Hornqvist missing large chunks of the season due to injury, and Alex Galchenyuk slumping to the point where the general manager doesn’t even see him as a guarantee to be in the lineup when the team gets healthy. Other than Guentzel the Pens need more skill on the wing. It’s one of the few holes on their team, if it ever achieves something close to health.
Addressing this when Crosby returns to the lineup in about a month would be a wise play. To best optimize Crosby and Malkin, they need players to support them. The prospect of one of Crosby/Malkin playing on a line with, say, Dominik Kahun and Jared McCann or Hornqvist and Brandon Tanev just doesn’t seem like enough any more after seeing what the star centers have accomplished with a player of Guentzel’s caliber.