Even though Jake Guentzel had already spent parts of two seasons in the NHL and been highly productive — especially come playoff time — I still didn’t truly know what to expect from him this season.
His playoff performance speaks for itself, and even though he still scored 22 goals a season ago it still seemed to be a very “quiet” 22 goals in the sense that he didn’t always stand out. Then there was also the Sidney Crosby variable where you had to determine how much of his goal-scoring success was related to Crosby, and how good he could be independent of playing next to one of the best players of all-time.
Sixty games into the season one thing is starting to become clear: Jake Guentzel is really, really, really good.
I still think the Crosby factor is still something that is going to drag down his perception outside of Pittsburgh just because it’s really easy to write off any player that has success next to him (and I get it because, again, I asked the question all offseason and entering the season). While it is almost certainly true that playing next to him has helped, there is still something to be said for being able to produce in that role. A lot of different wingers over the years have played next to Sidney Crosby and haven’t had a fraction of the success that Guentzel already has had, and is currently having this season.
No one has played on his wing and actually scored 40 goals in a season, something that Guentzel has an outside shot at doing this season, especially if he can hit one more hot streak over the next 22 games.
But it’s not just the goal-scoring and finishing ability that has made him such a big-time player for the Penguins this season.
I feel like his playmaking has taken a big step forward and that he is also one of the few players on the current team that is simply ... how to put this correctly and delicately for the rest of the team ... a smart hockey player. For as talented as this team is from a skill standpoint, it is not always the smartest team when it comes to its decision-making on the ice, and Guentzel seems to be one of the players that is usually immune to that (something you might expect from a coach’s son). You don’t typically see the glaring, “what are you thinking?!” mistake from him.
What I really like about his development, though, is the way his game has evolved away from even-strength and it is probably time for him to get an even bigger role in that area.
He and Crosby have been a wonderful addition to the penalty killing unit, but it is his work on the power play that is standing out right now.
Guentzel isn’t your prototypical net-front forward. He’s not a bull-in-a-china-shop wrecking ball like Patric Hornqvist is. He is not the strongest and most physical player you will find. And he does get knocked down on occasion.
But do you know what he is?
He is absolutely fearless and extremely effective when it comes to playing in front of the the net.
He has made a habit out of parking himself in front of the crease or in the slot and getting his stick on shots and scoring off deflections. Even when he doesn’t get his stick on it (like on Nick Bjugstad’s power play goal on Tuesday night against the New Jersey Devils) he is still a distraction for opposing goalies. For my money, he is the best net-front player the Penguins have right now, which brings me to perhaps my biggest point here — he needs moved to the top power play unit as soon as possible. It needed to happen yesterday. Or a week ago. It’s simply overdue.
Hornqvist has been a great Penguin, and he still might have some very good hockey ahead of him, but right now there is clearly something off with him. He has not recorded a point in 13 games and the top power play unit has had its share of struggles and you really can’t take any of the big guys (Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel) off of that unit without looking insane, and because there really isn’t anyone else that can do what they do.
That leaves Hornqvist, who is really fighting through a tough stretch right now and has a player behind him on the power play depth chart that might actually be more effective in that net-front role.
This was a big season for Jake Guentzel and we were going to find out an awful lot about what type of player he really is, and now we know — he is a damn good one.