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Could Jake Guentzel become the Penguins’ best NCAA product of all time?

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As of Thursday’s overtime goal against the Washington Capitals, Guentzel ranks 33rd on Pittsburgh’s all-time points list— and sixth among players who began their NHL careers in the NCAA.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Jake Guentzel (59) scores the game winning goal on Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek (41) in overtime on Apr. 29, 2021.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Nov. 21, 2016, 22-year-old Jake Guentzel brought his family and the rest of the crowd at PPG Paints Arena to their feet when he slid the puck under Rangers goaltender Antti Raanta’s pad on his first NHL shot.

It took him just 12 more minutes to score again.

At the time, it was thought Guentzel may at last be the end to the search for a winger to slot onto Evgeni Malkin’s line; by the finale of the 2016-17 season, the Penguins had discovered he might be the missing piece for Sidney Crosby.

Fast-forward five years, and Guentzel has proved he’s more than just a product of either Penguins superstar. As of his overtime goal against the Capitals in Washington on April 29, 2021, Guentzel’s 253 career points in 294 regular-season NHL games make him the 33rd most-productive player on the Penguins’ all-time points list.

Guentzel made his way towards cracking the top 30 through a somewhat unique path. He caught scouts’ eyes with the precise shot and quick skating that made him a highly-regarded prospect in the NCAA, where he led the University of Nebraska-Omaha in scoring for two years.

The NHL, a league comprised of 21% former college skaters in 2003, has slowly climbed to 33% by 2019 according to College Hockey Inc. The NCAA is growing to rival the minor leagues as a path to a professional hockey career.

The Penguins’ rosters under Jim Rutherford generally surged well above that 33% average. Pittsburgh’s two championship teams in 2015-16 and 2016-17 were composed of record-breaking majorities of NCAA-trained players.

Those above-average percentages have continued into 2020-21, when 14 of the 30 players on the roster came up to the NHL through college. Six of them (Anthony Angello, Zach Aston-Reese, Casey DeSmith, Jake Guentzel, Sam Lafferty and Bryan Rust) were originally signed or drafted by the Penguins organization, while Brian Dumoulin was a Rutherford draft pick for the Hurricanes back in 2009.

The adaptation of prospects to the NHL from college hockey has supplied the Penguins with two top-line wingers in Guentzel and Rust as well as become a core aspect of the Pittsburgh franchise identity— one that, given it’s success, we can hope continues past Rutherford’s tenure.

Of those many Penguins-selected college hockey players, few have been more successful than Guentzel, who is now the sixth-highest NCAA-trained points producer in Penguins history.

Pittsburgh’s top all-time NCAA products

All-time points ranking Name College Years NHL Games Played Goals Assists Points
All-time points ranking Name College Years NHL Games Played Goals Assists Points
9 Kevin Stevens Boston College 1983-87 522 260 295 555
14 Chris Kunitz Ferris State University 1999-2003 569 169 219 388
21 Joe Mullen Boston College 1975-79 379 153 172 325
24 Phil Kessel University of Minnesota 2005-06 328 110 193 303
29 John Cullen Boston University 1983-87 262 88 184 272
33 Jake Guentzel University of Nebraska-Omaha 2013-16 294 120 133 253

If Guentzel racks up 302 more points over the span of his NHL career, he will become the Penguins’ most productive NCAA-trained player of all time.

Will he manage it? If he keeps up his career production rate, he could hit that marker in another 260 contests (although, who can say who his linemates might be by that time?) Even if he doesn’t, his career up until now makes him one of the Penguins’ most successful scouting projects of the last two decades.