Penguins Top Line Needs Guentzel’s Game

It’s been over a week since the Washington Capitals eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins from the 2018 playoffs, and Jake Guentzel still leads the postseason scoring race with his 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists). He’s tied in points with linemate Sidney Crosby (9g, 12a), but the respective goal totals means that it’s his face still sitting atop’s stats page. Although the Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov is beginning to inch towards claiming the title for his own (he currently has 20 points), the honor still, for the moment, belongs to Guentzel. With those 21 points, the 23-year-old has now tallied 42 total in his 37 career postseason games.

Guentzel is scoring at a rate that puts him among the league’s best: his 0.622 career goals per playoff game  sits behind only that of Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Barry Pederson. The next-closest active player to achieving this rate is Ovechkin, who has scored 0.505 goals per game over 111 career postseason games. After tying the rookie record for playoff points in 2017, Guentzel has maintained his historic scoring rate when the games matter most.

Related: This is the Best Postseason Start of Crosby’s Career

A Permanent Linemate for Crosby?

These past two playoff runs have given Crosby the most consistent postseason linemate he’s had in years. In the 2018 postseason, Crosby played only 12 minutes in 12 games without Guentzel at even strength. The two played 160 minutes together overall and barely saw the ice during 5v5 play without one another. That’s a far cry from the two years preceding this run.

Jake Guentzel
Jake Guentzel. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2017, Crosby saw a similar amount of ice time with Guentzel at 12 minutes per game, but also played 82 minutes at even strength without him over the 24-game run. In 2016, when Hornqvist was the most consistent regular on the top line, Crosby averaged 13 minutes per game with him but nevertheless saw 60 minutes with other linemates over the course of the postseason. The Penguins are used to rotating Crosby’s linemates as the playoffs develop. Guentzel is the first in quite a while to play as a true package deal with the Penguins’ first-line center.

The importance of finding that regular partner for Crosby cannot be overstated: he’s the most consistent postseason player in the league, leading active players in the NHL in playoff points per game with a rate of 1.156 points over 160 career playoff games. Linemates who can keep up with him are hard to come by. The extremely limited amount of time that Crosby and Guentzel saw the ice at 5v5 without one another throughout this playoffs run shows that head coach Mike Sullivan has found a top-line pairing in these two players that he trusts— and with good reason. In the 2018 postseason, this line scored 19 goals to the seven they allowed against.

Crosby-Guentzel Chemistry

Guentzel is a skilled scorer who, unlike many of the young wingers that the Penguins have slotted up with Crosby over the years (a few recent names being Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Dominic Simon, Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese) has shown that he can score consistently over a long range of time. And not only that, but he’s skilled at setting up assists as well— something that Crosby can certainly cash in on, as the Penguins saw in this play from Guentzel to set up a Crosby goal in Game 1 of the second round.

This pairing on the top line is an exercise in chemistry that’s been a recurring theme for a year and a half now. After this postseason, it has a good chance of becoming a relatively permanent setup in the 2018-19 season, especially with Guentzel still on his entry-level contract for another year.

Related: Crosby vs Ovechkin Trilogy: Good for Hockey?

Guentzel’s Upcoming Contract

A notable aspect of this high-level scoring is that the Penguins got it all for cheap. Guentzel remains on his sub-$800,000 ELC through 2018-19, which means the Penguins will likely be looking to sign him onto a contract sometime next season.

Jake Guentzel
Jake Guentzel. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

This is just one of many contracts that will need to be negotiated soon. The Penguins are going to have to negotiate with a long list of names over the next two years; that includes Simon, Rust, Aston-Reese, Tom Kuhnhackl, Carter Rowney, Carl Hagelin, Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and, finally, Guentzel. And there lies the one drawback to these last two postseason runs— if the Penguins want to keep Guentzel on the roster, they’re going to have to shell over some serious cash. Negotiating Guentzel’s upcoming contract will have to be on the minds of the Penguins’ management as they consider deals for players like Rust and Sheahan over this summer.