Sometimes you can see that a player just has a flair for the dramatic. Mario Lemieux scored on his very first shot in the NHL against a hapless Pete Peeters of the Boston Bruins. Jake Guentzel did the same thing in his NHL debut earlier this year against Antti Raanta and the New York Rangers:
Now this is not to say that Guentzel is the next Mario. Plenty of players throughout NHL history have scored on their first shot. But Guentzel is not a flash-in-the-pan rookie, as evidenced by his continued high level of production.
After that first stint of five NHL games in November, Guentzel was recalled when the plague of injuries started to descend on the Penguins in January. He’s been a fixture in the lineup since, first playing on Malkin’s line, but then getting bumped up to Crosby’s line on February 11th. When Conor Sheary returned from his upper body injury on March 3rd, the line of Guentzel-Crosby-Sheary was formed and has rapidly become nightmare fuel for opposing defenses in the NHL.
In the 9 games this trio has been united (prior to the Sabres game on Tuesday night), here’s the stats for each player:
- Guentzel — 9 games, 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists)
- Crosby — 9 games, 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists)
- Sheary — 9 games, 12 points (3 points, 9 assists)
Against the Florida Panthers on Sunday, Guentzel and Sheary got to pad their point totals by feeding the puck to Crosby, who went all NHL ’94-that’s-unfair-mode in the game, getting a natural hat trick rather effortlessly. Even though skating on Crosby’s line can make anyone look good (except Jarome Iginla, apparently), this isn’t a case like with Mario Lemieux making Warren Young a brief fleeting star back in 1984-85 when he scored 40 goals on Lemieux’s wing. Guentzel is an offensive talent in his own right.
Case in point — Jake Guentzel is still 3rd on the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins scoring list, despite being with the big club for half the season, with his 42 points (21 goals, 21 assists) in 33 games. Guentzel was a 3rd round pick in the 2013 draft, in what may be Ray Shero’s final parting gift to the Pens (he was fired a month before the 2014 draft), especially when 2nd round pick Tristan Jarry ascends to the big club.
I wrote recently about how important it is that players like Guentzel, Sheary, and Bryan Rust are giving the Penguins high production on either entry-level contracts or soon-to-be low-cost RFA bridge contracts, in the case of Sheary. The Penguins get to reap the benefits of Guentzel’s on-ice production for just $734,167 for the next two seasons. And the good news is that as a 2nd-year professional, he’s ineligible to be taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the summer Expansion Draft.
What should have become a dominant and fear-inducing top line in the playoffs was brought to a screeching halt on Tuesday night, thanks to a cheap hit by Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Ristolainen was given a 5 minute major and a game misconduct for this hit on Guentzel:
Concussions and the Penguins go together like peanut butter and jelly, it seems. The medical staff should have plenty of experience by now in how to deal with them, but keep in mind that each player responds to a concussion in a different way. There are also different gradations of concussions to factor in to the equation. As someone that has had four known concussions in my life, they are not to be trifled with.
The Penguins would be best served keeping Guentzel out the rest of the regular season, save for perhaps the final game or two to act as a tuneup, then re-unite the Guentzel-Crosby-Sheary line for the 1st round of the playoffs. Jake Guentzel has a potentially dazzling career ahead of him. He could be ready to become the next playoff legend in Pens history. But after Tuesday night, there’s a temporary fog that has settled over him that needs to lift first.