There’s always a lot that goes into winning a championship, but one of the most important factors to Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run last season was how well the team’s unheralded young players performed. Matt Murray, Bryan Rust, and Conor Sheary all took their turn playing hero on the way to the 2016 title.
They are all regular “NHLers” now, but that doesn’t mean Pittsburgh is done bringing up impactful youngsters from the AHL.
Impressively, the Penguins still have a couple young players performing at a high level in the AHL that could potentially make an impact this season; the first of which is wing Jake Guentzel. He’s spent only one week in Pittsburgh, but he’s already making his case for why he should permanently stay with the Penguins.
With both Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz out due to injuries, coach Mike Sullivan needed to fill two spots on the top six and elected the rookie to make his debut alongside Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel last Monday against the Rangers.
It didn’t take long for Guentzel to make an impact, as he scored a goal on his first NHL shift, and then he added a second one in the first period. His first came off the rush, where Guentzel has done some of his best work in the minors, and the second was on a loose rebound in the slot.
The 22-year-old was done scoring in that game, but not for the week. He added another goal in Saturday’s game against New Jersey on another loose puck close to the net.
Now, Guentzel won’t continue to score on 50 percent of his shots, but his presence should be a breath of fresh air for a team that actually hasn’t seen much secondary scoring yet this season.
Despite the fact secondary scoring was a bedrock for this team last spring, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined to score about 35.0 percent of the team’s goals at even strength. Interestingly, that number is down 5.0 percent since Guentzel’s arrival, and he’s a big reason why.
The 22-year-old hasn’t even played a full season at the AHL level, so it’s tough to determine what type of goal production to expect from him, but in 16 games at Wilkes-Barre Scranton to begin this season, he had seven goals and 17 points.
During his final season at Nebraska-Omaha, he had 19 goals and 46 points in 36 games. Alongside Malkin and Kessel, there are reasons to believe Guentzel could score 15-20 goals.
If he continues to play on the second line, he isn’t technically a secondary scorer because Guentzel would be on the top six, but he is another scoring option at even strength.
The Guentzel play from his first NHL week that stood out the most was Friday versus Minnesota. On a simple dump into the offensive zone, the 22-year-old got on his horse and bore down hard on the Wild defense, creating a loose puck.
Malkin quickly corralled it and found an open Kessel on the opposite side of the net for a score.
Those kinds of puck battle wins were just as important to Pittsburgh’s formula last season as team speed. Without Hornqvist and Kunitz, there’s a lot less grit in the Penguins’ lineup, but Guentzel at least proved on that play, and on two of his goals, he isn’t afraid to go to the dirty areas. Pittsburgh could use more of that even when Hornqvist and Kunitz return.
Now, the biggest question, though, will be if Guentzel stays, who leaves? Once healthy, Hornqvist deserves a top-line role and Kunitz should assume a spot in the top-nine.
That’s much trickier, and there’s no logical answer. Forwards Nick Bonino and Tom Kuhmhackl have struggled the most to score and own the worst possession numbers on the team, but they play valuable roles on the penalty kill. The same can basically be said for Eric Fehr.
That might mean Rust or fellow 2015 call-up Scott Wilson could be in line for reduced playing time. Both have scored within the last week but have just three goals each to match the production from Guentzel’s first NHL week.
The solution will not be easy, but as always, this is a good problem to have. Based on Pittsburgh’s recent history, this team is going to go through more injuries, and they will need all their young players at some point over the course of 60 more games.
Having said that, should Guentzel continue to score and display the same youth and energy that sparked their Stanley Cup run last season, Pittsburgh must ride his hot streak and keep him in the lineup.