The Pittsburgh Penguins suffered the latest in a never-ending line of devastating blows on the injury front when it was announced yesterday that Jake Guentzel is out week-to-week with an undisclosed upper body injury.
Related: Decoding Sullivan — what a “week-to-week” injury means in terms of how long to expect a player to be out
Guentzel had been one of the more durable Pens players as of late, he missed the first game of this season due to COVID protocols, but appeared in all other games this season and all 56 of 56 in 2020-21. Now he’ll be out for a while, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time being as he was in the midst of a NHL season-high 13-game point streak.
Somehow that still doesn’t sound impressive enough for how good Guentzel has been in the immediate past where he has scored six goals and recorded eight points in the last three games alone. Guentzel has 12 goals in his prior 12 games, to lead the NHL in goal scoring since November 14th. His 18 points in that stretch ranks second in the NHL behind Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov (19).
With a snap of the finger, that production and the main engine that fuels the Penguins is now gone for a bit, so it leaves the question — just what comes next? The practice lineup gives a clue.
Pens workflow without Guentzel and Zucker:— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) December 8, 2021
Note: Rust is also absent from practice, and Malkin (no contact) did not take rushes.
After writing 1,300+ words on Kasperi Kapanen yesterday, the mercurial forward summed up his game a lot more concisely:
Kasperi Kapanen was asked how he’s played in recent games:— Seth Rorabaugh (@SethRorabaugh) December 8, 2021
There might be no better chance for Kapanen to ever get it going than the opportunity he might have in filling in for Guentzel’s place right now with Sidney Crosby and Evan Rodrigues.
Kapanen will be likely getting an opportunity on the top line with Guentzel out.— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) December 8, 2021
"Those are pretty big shoes to fill, obviously. Jake's been one of our best players, if not our best player, for a long period now ... I just got to step up my game."
At this point, the Pens need Kapanen, and they basically have no choice to go the “tough love” route of sitting him on the bench for extended periods or playing him with the spare parts players of the fourth line. Pittsburgh is going to desperately need some players to step up to help fill the production void that Guentzel has been providing. Kapanen is choice one for that.
Jason Zucker will be another player who needs to take the strong underlying process and turn that into putting pucks into the net during this dire time. The Pens can live with and win games without players like Kapanen and Zucker when Crosby and Guentzel are firing on all cylinders, but now the situation has shifted big time.
The down news is that you won’t see Zucker’s name in the line rushes, he missed practice yesterday on a “maintenance day”. That’s Sullivan code for a banged up player who needs a day off but should be able to be available to play in the next game. Zucker does have a bit of the luxury of time, since the Pens had a slight break in the schedule this week with a game on Monday and then not again until Friday. But now the burden of expectation will be falling on a player who probably isn’t quite 100% to step his game up to a level that hasn’t been at lately, which always is a big ask.
Otherwise it doesn’t look like much immediate help is coming in the way of reinforcements. Bryan Rust, who fell in pregame warmups and got injured on Nov. 26th, still is not back skating. Evgeni Malkin has been working in a non-contact jersey as he gears up from offseason knee surgery, but the team has not announced a return date and still talk of his “progression” as if he needs more time in his rehab process.
For the Pens now, it’s back to that old familiar refrain, “next man up”.
Marcus Pettersson on having to play without Jake Guentzel for a period of time: "It's next man up, as we have had for a few years now. It's going to be no different. New guys got to step up, and new opportunities for guys."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) December 8, 2021
Marcus Pettersson, picking up the mantle for the NHL’s next 13-game scoring streak??? Is that a prediction? Probably not, but Pittsburgh has done well by finding a way to carry forward without key players, and there challenge will be a familiar one without Guentzel. If players like Kapanen and Zucker can start stepping up, it will sure make the days go faster until players like Malkin, Rust and Guentzel are able to get back into the lineup.