Jake Guentzel was on pace to produce back-to-back 40-goal seasons when a shoulder injury ended his regular season in late December, so his healthy return to the Penguins as they open camp today is a big, big deal. Even the talent-laden Penguins haven’t had a player deliver consecutive 40-goal seasons since Jaromir Jagr did so in each of his last three winters here.
Despite the injury and the long layoff, there is every reason to believe Guentzel will be productive heading straight into the post-season. This is a guy who led the Stanley Cup playoffs in goals three seasons ago at the age of 22 and has delivered 15 goals in his last 22 playoff games.
But there are two aspects of the left winger’s return that coach Mike Sullivan needs to sort through in an effort to maximize Guentzel’s potential to push Pittsburgh toward a long playoff run. One is obvious and the other may not be.
The obvious question is whether to play him beside Sidney Crosby, where he spent the last 63 regular season games in 2018-19 and the first 17 games this season, or beside Evgeni Malkin, where he played for 19 games after Crosby was hurt and before he suffered his own injury.
Guentzel will be productive in either spot. In those 80 regular season games with Crosby, Guentzel went 41-36-77 (0.96 points per game); in those 19 games with Malkin he was even more productive, going 12-15-27 (1.42 points per game). I think the fact Crosby is a more predictable player than Malkin makes him a better fit for Guentzel, who is so good at reading plays, though you can’t ignore the kind of production he had with Malkin.
As I said, either way the Penguins win. It may come down to whether left wing Jason Zucker, who played exclusively with Crosby after being acquired from Minnesota, can show some chemistry with Malkin during camp. If not, Zucker will stay with Crosby; I would not move Guentzel to his off wing, where he hasn’t seemed as comfortable.
The other challenge for Sullivan is to get Guentzel comfortable and productive on this first power play unit, with which he’s had little experience. Phil Kessel’s power play production made him an easy choice to join Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and often Patric Hornqvist on the power play, but this season was going to be the one in which Guentzel’s power play time and production soared.
Unfortunately, injuries to all three of the big point-producers limited Guentzel to just six games with that first unit this season, and in that brief span they produced virtually nothing. The Penguins went 2-for-20 (10.0%) in those six games, and Guentzel did not have a single power play point and only one shot.
Given his willingness to go to the front of the net, his comfort level playing in either circle and his ability to take one-timers, Guentzel has more to offer the first unit than Kessel. He was on pace for career-best power play numbers this season, hardly surprising given his dramatic increase in ice time, but it’s still early in his time specifically with the Pittsburgh first power play unit.
Taking time in training camp to begin making up some of that lost time should be a priority. Guentzel’s acclimation to the first unit can help correct the Penguins’ underachievement on the power play this season – and thus help dispatch a Montreal team against which Pittsburgh should have a special teams advantage.