Jake Guentzel made quite an entrance onto the Penguins’ roster at Monday night’s game against the Rangers, when he became the fastest player in Penguins history to score his first goal, 62 seconds into his first NHL period. Where did he come from, and what role is he going to play for the Penguins in the future?
Chosen 77th overall in the third round of the 2013 draft by the Penguins, Guentzel played three years of college hockey at University of Nebraska-Omaha before moving up to spend the 2015-16 season in the AHL. His call-up to the NHL came with the movement of Chris Kunitz, currently week-to-week with a lower body injury, to the Injured Reserve.
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Before his recall to the NHL, Guentzel was dominating the AHL rankings; he was ranked third among all players and first among rookies, and had the highest plus-minus rating in the league at plus-14. Although he was instrumental in saving the Penguins from a shutout on Monday, he’s also needed in the lower leagues, where he’s one of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s star players.
A 2-Goal Debut for Guentzel
The Penguins ended up dropping Monday’s game against the Rangers despite Guentzel giving them a 2-0 lead with his two goals in the first period when they were unable to answer the Ranger’s next five goals.
Sullivan put Guentzel on a line with Malkin and Kessel for the rookie’s debut. Guentzel scored two goals in his first three shots; despite 28 more shots by Pittsburgh, including two more attempts from Guentzel himself, the Penguins couldn’t manage to put anything more past Antti Raanta, New York’s second-string goaltender.
Guentzel played a similar amount of minutes in both of the two NHL games he’s played, getting on the ice for 20 shifts the first game and 17 the second. In his second game against the Rangers, however, he didn’t put up any points, coming away with a neutral plus-minus rating of 0.
Guentzel, the Future Penguin
The difference between the Penguins’ scoresheet in the two games against the Rangers Monday and Wednesday night could not have been more pronounced. It may have surprised some fans that the only name on Monday’s scoresheet was one they had never seen before. Wednesday’s scoresheet was a much more predictable list of names, with goals from top scorers like Crosby and Kessel. What does it mean that Guentzel was so successful in his first game and that he seemed to drop off the list of top forwards entirely in his second?
The fact that Guenztel played such a big role in Monday’s game and such a minimal one in Wednesday’s says a lot about the role he’s going to play for the Penguins right now. He’s currently a top scorer in the AHL; Mike Sullivan has said that he’s “a point-a-game guy at the American League level,” as shown by his current 17 points in 16 AHL games this season. He’s good enough to get on the scoresheet when the rest of the team isn’t stepping up, but when Pittsburgh’s stars are playing up to their potential he’s much less likely to be a deciding factor in whether the Penguins win or lose.
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Guentzel is a good player to be developing in the lower leagues. He’s currently a solid call-up option for inevitable injuries in the Penguins’ lineup. Signed on for the next three years and waivers-exempt on an entry level contract, he’ll eventually make a solid more permanent addition to the lineup, especially if the Penguins can’t manage to protect some of their other lower-cost forwards like Conor Sheary, who will become a restricted free agent at the end of this season. For now, we can expect to see more back-and-forth between the NHL and AHL for Guentzel as players from the current active roster rotate through the Injured Reserve. Perhaps next season, when Guentzel has more experience in both the major and minor leagues, inevitable roster shuffling due to the looming expansion draft will end up with him assuming a more permanent role on the team.