When it was announced that both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ twin franchise pillars, were scheduled to miss the beginning of the 2021-22 NHL season, the organization was in dire need of a savior. Fortunately, Jake Guentzel has been more than up to the task, and is currently in the midst of the best season of his career, earning an All-Star Game nomination for his efforts. Let’s dive into what has become a banner year for the unheralded winger, and take a closer look at what’s driven his early success.
Guentzel Taking Next Step in Offensive Evolution
The absence of Pittsburgh’s familiar offensive weapons meant that several players were thrust into more prominent roles in the team’s attack, and the 27-year-old Guentzel responded emphatically to the challenge. His production this season has him aspiring to clear previous career highs, and his underlying metrics suggest that he’s grabbed the mantle of being one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive threats.
Upgraded Offensive Production Places Guentzel in Esteemed Company
Although he already has a 40-goal season to his name from the 2018-19 season, Guentzel’s scoring output this season blows that campaign out of the water. At almost the midseason mark of the season, he ranks at or near the top of several of the Penguins’ offensive leaderboards, sitting first in goals (20) and points (38), and third in assists (18). He’s also tallied at least one point in 20 of his last 21 games, all of which makes his contract (three more years at $6 million per) an incredible bargain.
It’s one thing to pace one’s own team in scoring, but Guentzel’s production sees him enjoying the company of several of the NHL’s biggest stars. Guentzel is on pace for career-highs in goals (47), assists (43), and points (90) assuming he plays in all of Pittsburgh’s 44 remaining games in the season. His goal total ties him for sixth league-wide, and his accumulated points are good enough to wiggle into the top 10 (ninth) on the year.
The American forward isn’t relying on the power play to boost his production either, as he’s tied for the league lead in goals at 5v5 (14) and sixth in points (26). Even more impressive is his output when his time-on-ice is accounted for, posting career-bests in 5v5 production in almost every offensive category.
Despite having little offensive support for a large part of the season, Guentzel ranks fourth in goals per-60 (G/60), 35th in assists per-60 (A/60), and ninth in points per-60 (P/60) among all skaters this season (minimum 200 5v5 minutes). Not only are his raw counting stats blasting past his career highs, but he’s been one of the NHL’s most efficient scorers in the same breath.
Guentzel’s Underlying Metrics Indicate a More Dangerous Offensive Weapon
Even in a career season, Geuntzel’s underlying metrics indicate a vastly improved attacking threat. His shooting percentage (SH%) of 17.3% at 5v5 resembles the 17.03% he produced in his current benchmark scoring season, but he’s far from being a fortunate beneficiary of favorable puck luck. The jump in production is driven by heightened rates of individual shot and chance generation, lending credence to the argument that Guentzel is a legitimate All-Star nominee.
|Individual Expected Goals (ixG)||0.85||0.64||1.08|
A quick glance at Guentzel’s year-over-year comparison suggests that he’s returned to his normal, dominant self, generating career-bests in each of the four categories listed in the table above. He is generating shots (22nd among all skaters with a minimum of 200 5v5 minutes), ixG (14th), scoring chances (eighth), and high-danger looks (28th) at an elite rate, and it’s no surprise that it’s led to increased box score production.
Guentzel Isn’t Sacrificing Defensive Duties for Offensive Success
While Guentzel’s uptick in scoring is a welcome development for the hamstrung Penguins, it hasn’t come at the expense of his defensive responsibilities during 5v5 play. Guentzel has balanced the need for greater offensive involvement with ensuring he does the little things to help Pittsburgh control the flow of the game.
When Guentzel plays at 5v5, the Penguins control a majority of shot attempts (53.5%), scoring chances (53.2%), and the overall share of expected goals (53.4%). The defensive inputs of those percentages aren’t necessarily indicative of a strong shot suppressor (he ranks in the 200-300 range for qualified forwards this season), but his talent and hockey sense allow him to quickly turn chances against into rapid counterattacks.
According to MoneyPuck, Guentzel has featured on Pittsburgh’s second and third best lines by expected goals (minimum 100 5v5 minutes), teaming up with Crosby and Evan Rodrigues (63 xGF%) and Crosby and Bryan Rust (52.5 xGF%) to great effect. The first trio ranks ninth in the NHL and regularly drives play for the Penguins at even-strength.
The tide of momentum is almost always in his team’s favor and that’s just as valuable as being a pure defensive stopper. Even if he bled an inordinate number of shots and scoring chances against, Guentzel could be forgiven for having to bear the brunt of Pittsburgh’s scoring load. Luckily, he has juggled the two admirably this season, bolstering his formidable All-Star case.
Can Guentzel Continue To Play at an All-Star Level?
While the return of Crosby and Malkin means that Guentzel is no longer the team’s primary offensive weapon, Guentzel shouldn’t fear a drastic reduction in production. He can function as a more complementary – but still dangerous – piece for his two heralded teammates, thriving off of reduced defensive attention. In any case, his offensive game looks to have evolved into a more dynamic offering, giving the Penguins another All-Star level talent to trot out on a nightly basis. The rest of the NHL should take note as Pittsburgh is rolling once more, and a fourth Stanley Cup of the Crosby and Malkin era is firmly within their sights.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.