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Jake Guentzel, the playoffs, and what went wrong

Jake Guentzel has just three goals in his past 14 playoff games and this is where narratives get started.

Boston Bruins v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

During his first two years in the NHL Jake Guentzel scored 23 goals in his first 37 playoff games for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That is a lot.

That included a league-best 13 goals for a team that won its second straight Stanley Cup, and then 10 goals (and 21 total points!) in only 12 games the following postseason.

Almost all of those goals came at even-strength.

He had a shorthanded goal.

He had two hat tricks, a four-goal game in an elimination game, and seven game-winning goals (including an overtime goal!). There was no doubt as to whether or not he could perform in the big moments, or if he was a “playoff player.”

He was. The big moment and the spotlight was not too much for him. Nobody could stop him.

During the next three seasons his overall game in the regular season reached an entirely new level as he become one of the most productive wingers in hockey, scoring 83 goals in 177 games. That comes out to a nearly 40-goal pace per 82 games and is one of the best marks in the entire NHL. If you want to chalk that up to playing next to Sidney Crosby on a regular basis, you can do that. But a lot of talented players have skated alongside Crosby (including Crosby in his prime and at his absolute peak) and never performed at that level. There is still something to be said for finishing, and Guentzel is a smart, productive, well-rounded player that has become one of the best all-around wingers in the league.

His contract is a bargain against the salary cap and he is right now in the prime of his career.

Still, something has happened over the past three postseasons that is now starting to get a lot of attention.

The goal scoring for him has dried up. Including his 2020-21 performance, where he scored one goal in the six-game series loss to the New York Islanders, he has just three goals in his past 14 playoff games over the past three postseasons. That is one goal per series, and it is starting to shift the narrative as to what sort of player Guentzel is or what the Penguins should do with him.

In the aftermath of the Penguins’ loss to the Islanders, I have heard more than one suggestion (not just in media; also in every day conversations) that maybe it is time to move on from Guentzel. That maybe, after being knocked to the ice a few times, he is not cut out for playoff hockey or is not the type of player you need to win in today’s NHL. Or that maybe he should be the focal point of a James Neal-Patric Hornqvist trade to bring in a different type of forward.

This does not make sense to me.

None of it, honestly.

When your team loses, especially when it loses early multiple years in a row, there is a sense of frustration that comes with that. There is a desire to make changes, maybe even sweeping changes. There are definitely times when such a reaction is necessary. Sometimes you do need to move on or make a change or bring in a different type of player. But a lot of times that mindset and reaction is an overreaction to a five or six game stretch that is not an accurate portrayal of what is happening. You can make a lot of bad decisions when you put so much emphasis on just that.

Let’s start with this postseason series where Guentzel had just one goal, a power play goal, in Game 6 of the series.

The Islanders played him tough, the top line as a whole was not at at its best, and the production was not always there for them on the scoreboard, and especially Guentzel. We know that.

The reason I am having a hard time buying the “well, other teams are playing him tough and he’s not cut out for that” narrative is that if that were the case, wouldn’t it show up in his ability to actually create scoring chances and shots? If you could just physically bully him and wear him down wouldn’t you also stop him from creating opportunities?

Against the Islanders he led the team in shots on goals.

He led the team in individual scoring chances and expected goals.

He was constantly getting the puck on the net and creating chances at a rate higher than he did during the regular season.

Over the past there postseasons he has, again, been one of their top players in those areas and one of the top players in the entire league.

Of the 303 skaters that have played at least 200 minutes of postseason hockey (all situations) the past three years Guentzel ranks...

  • 17th in shots on goal per 60 minutes
  • 50th in shot attempts per 60 minutes
  • 12th in individual expected goals per 60 minutes
  • 12th in individual scoring chances per 60 minutes
  • 11th in individual high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes

Nothing that any team has done against him, or the way they have played him, has prevented him from getting shots and chances.

Not only that, he is creating shots and chances per 60 minutes at a higher rate than he did during his first two postseasons when he could not stop scoring goals.

Jake Guentzel Playoff Performance Individual Shots, Shot Attempts, And Scoring Chances

Seasons ICF/60 Shots/60 iXG/60 SC/60 HD/60
Seasons ICF/60 Shots/60 iXG/60 SC/60 HD/60
2019-2021 15.74 10.20 1.22 11.30 5.45
2017-2018 12.81 7.96 1.04 8.97 4.30

If you want to try and convince me that he is doing something different, or that his game has been sidetracked by opposing defenses or the way he is played physically, you can do that. It is going to take some pretty strong convincing me to think there is some kind of an issue here. Again, if all of that were the case why would it not also prevent him from creating chances? The biggest part of scoring a goal is simply getting a chance and getting a shot on goal. If you want to stop goals, you have to stop chances.

The biggest change is the damn puck did not go in the net. Why did it not go in the net? It could be any number of variables. They have played three pretty good goalies during that stretch. Maybe it was something outside of his control once the puck leaves his stick. Perhaps it is just the ebbs and flows of goal scoring at the NHL level. Maybe it is all three factors.

If there is one thing we, as a hockey community, need to do a better job of understanding and accepting it is that goal scoring is a streaky thing. It is streaky during the regular season. It is streaky during the playoffs. Sometimes your top players are going to go games where they do not score goals no matter what they do or how well they play.

This table here shows the top-20 active playoff goal scorers in the NHL. It shows how many games they have played, how many goals they have scored, the number of games they have played in which they have scored at least one goal, and the longest goal scoring droughts they have experienced and the number of series they have played without scoring a goal.

It should be eye-opening.

Outside of Alex Ovechkin, who is playing hockey on his own planet, the absolute best playoff goal scorers in the NHL score a goal, on average, in 25-30 percent of their playoff games. Over a seven game series that is one or two games.

In some cases, these guys get hot and score a bunch goals.

In others, they go lengthy stretches without any goals.

Look at some of the droughts there. Brad Marchand once went 20 consecutive playoff games without a goal. Corey Perry once went 19 games. Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron have double-digit stretches.

Take a look at back at the Penguins’ Stanley Cup teams and see how many times Sidney Crosby went seven or eight games without a goal.

The 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup despite Toews scoring just one goal in his first 20 playoff games that year (he had droughts of nine and 10 games in the same postseason before scoring two goals in the final three Stanley Cup Final games). While that was happening Patrick Kane had a 15-game stretch where he scored only two goals. During those stretches they were getting shredded in the media. Then they won the Stanley Cup and all was forgotten. The key was that they played enough games (because the rest of the team was good enough to keep winning) to play their way out of their droughts.

These are the best players of their era! Players that are known as clutch players! MVP winners! Conn Smythe winners! Physical, tough, gritty players! If THEY have trouble scoring goals on a consistent basis in the playoffs then what chance do players one or two tiers below them have?

It does not make for good copy or good TV or radio to say, “well, this guy is doing the right thing but the puck’s just not going in the net.”

We have to have reasons for failure. We have to create a narrative for why the puck did not go in the net. But sometimes hockey just does not cooperate with you or care how you are playing. Especially in the playoffs where games get tighter defensively, the competition gets better on a nightly basis, you are playing against the best goalies every game, and the league’s referees turn things into a no rules “let them play” slop fest.

Sometimes you are not going to score goals and there is no good reason for it. Nobody wants to hear that when you lose. But no player in the league can avoid it. Ever.

Am not saying that Guentzel should be an untouchable player on the roster or in trade talks. If an opportunity presents itself where you can make your team better by moving him you are not doing your job if you do not consider it or explore it or make the trade. But you also should not be looking to move on from him or think there is something wrong with the way he has played. He has an extensive track record of incredible success in the NHL, in both the regular season and playoffs, and a recent 14-game sampling (that is only, roughly, 4 percent of his entire NHL career) does not change that. Thinking you need to make a chance based on that is recklessly shortsighted and will probably do more to make your team worse than improve it.