Jake Guentzel didn’t shy away from criticism after the Pittsburgh Penguins fell to the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I let a lot of people down,” Guentzel said during the team’s final media availability on May 28.
The first-line left-winger will try to avoid a repeat performance next season after scoring a goal and an assist in six games against the Islanders. In his last 14 playoff games, dating back three seasons, Guentzel has six points (three goals, three assists) compared to 41 points (23 goals, 18 assists) in 37 games between the 2017 and 2018 postseasons, his first two in the NHL.
First-line center Sidney Crosby turns 34 on Aug. 7 and is entering his late prime. Guentzel, a key contributor toward Crosby’s chances at a fourth Stanley Cup championship, plans to return stronger, literally.
Hitting the Gym
Guentzel is durable. He missed the end of the 2019-20 regular season after shoulder surgery on Dec. 31 but played the full 82-game schedule in the previous two seasons. He was one of two Penguins, with linemate Bryan Rust, to play in all 56 games this season.
But Guentzel isn’t physically imposing. He and forward Brandon Tanev weigh 180 pounds. Only defenseman Marcus Pettersson (177) and forward Frederick Gaudreau (179) weigh less. That said, he doesn’t need to be imposing, but he needs to withstand the strain of playoff hockey.
“Strength training,” Guentzel said when asked what his focus would be this offseason. “Ready to go, get back in and try to physically get stronger. For me, I think I’m just excited to get in the weight room and get going for that reason. Because I’ve just got to be better overall. It’s going to be a good summer just because it’s left a sour taste in my mouth.”
Guentzel is skilled, with 40 goals in 2018-19 and 23 in 2020-21 (on pace for 34 in an 82-game season). But playoff hockey is more aggressive, and the Islanders often bullied him this postseason. Adding a few pounds of muscle could keep that from happening again next season, against New York or any team.
To be fair, Guentzel didn’t disappear during the playoffs. He led the Penguins with 25 shots on goal, and his line, along with Crosby (21) and Rust (18), ranked second and third, combined for 64 shots but only four goals. Guentzel wasn’t afraid to shoot, but he was forced to the outside. Of his 25 shots, six came from around the crease, and five were from the high slot. The remaining 14 were taken in or above the circles. He also never scored at 5-on-5; his only goal was scored from the high slot on a power play as the Penguins were sent home after a 5-3 loss in Game 6 on May 26.
“Sometimes you’re feeling it, and everything goes in,” Guentzel said. “Sometimes, it’s just not going to find the way into the net. I thought I had chances, had shots. I’ve got to find a better way to produce and do my job there.”
After getting an assist in Game 1, Guentzel was held without a point in the next four games. Yes, rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin stonewalled the Penguins for much of the series, but New York’s defense also made it very difficult to get in tight.
Crosby Aiding Guentzel
Guentzel’s linemate, Crosby, also had a disappointing playoffs with two points (one goal, one assist). The two players are mutually dependent and have been since they won the Stanley Cup together in 2017. As Crosby goes, Guentzel goes. Guentzel has three goals, three assists in the past three postseasons, and so does Crosby.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan likes his forward pairings. Second-line center Evgeni Malkin has right-winger Kasperi Kapanen, and Crosby has Guentzel. Rust is at home on the top line’s right-wing but has played up and down the lineup during his seven seasons with the team. Guentzel will likely stay with Crosby, for the most part, perhaps for as long as they are both in Pittsburgh. He performed well with Malkin last season, while Crosby recovered from a lower-body injury between Nov. 12-Jan. 12, but he is most effective as Crosby’s winger.
If Crosby wants to hoist the Stanley Cup again, he’ll need help from Guentzel, just as Guentzel may need more from Crosby.
Guentzel’s Future in Pittsburgh
In 2018, the Penguins re-signed Guentzel to a five-year, $30 million contract through the 2023-24 season. Although he’s said he’s open to adding size this offseason, general manager Ron Hextall also claimed he would be comfortable with the same group returning next season. There’s little reason to part with a point-per-game player who ranked second in team scoring this season and has a cap hit of $6 million, so Guentzel’s near-term future with the Penguins seems secure. But that doesn’t mean losing an opening-round series for a third straight season isn’t a major concern.
“You know the game’s a business,” Guentzel said. “You never know what’s going to happen. I think, for us, you never want to have an early exit. The last three years have been that case. We’ve just got to be better, overall, in the playoffs. Stuff happens. It’s part of the business. But I think it’s out of our control. That’s up to management. So, we’ve just got to make sure we’re better next year.”