Over a decade ago, a quarterback named Jake Plummer whom no one expected to be really good almost guided the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl appearance in 2005. This year, a Pittsburgh Penguin that was never expected to be linemates with Sidney Crosby, let alone be able to have this successful of an NHL career as Jake Guentzel has had this early in his career. But after being picked only in the third round of the 2013 draft, you would think that his road ahead would be an arduous one with his somewhat frail 5’11″180-pound frame in a grown man’s league. Instead, his speed and slick hands carried him through Nebraska-Omaha (40 goals and 119 points in 108 career games), a sip of water with AHL Scranton-Wilkes Barre (23 goals and 48 points in 44 career games) and smack dab into the heartbeat of Steel City.
Eventually, we will all know what the 23-year old’s norms are statistically because frankly, they are out of this world and then some. In his rookie season, Guentzel scored 33 points in 40 games. Again, this comes from a third-round pick (who’s rights did belong to Philadelphia for a short bit until they traded it for Nicklas Grossmann! Thanks Paul Holmgren)! Surely enough, you have to stare at his 19.8% shooting percentage in the regular season that carried all the way towards Pittsburgh’s second Stanley Cup and wondered if that whole saga would stay permanent.
Surely enough, it didn’t by way of just 48 points in a full 82-game season while his individual shooting percentage dropped to a solid-but-not-that-ridiculous 12.9%. However, consider that his on-ice shooting percentage at even strength was only 6.9%. With the way the NHL experienced a hint of an offensive renaissance, that poor puck luck stands out even more. So again, we just don’t know his new norm. Fast forward to yesterday and you saw Guentzel not only light his PDO on fire but also see him replace Evgeni Malkin with all kinds of aggression, skillful risk taking and just shear never-ending offensive power. You almost forget he’s just that short and skinny.
Guentzel’s performance not only overshadowed shear heroism by Sean Couturier and whatever was left of his right MCL but continued his utter dominance in the postseason that sees him now with 19 goals and 34 points in 31 postseason games. But once again, those 19 goals came from a 27.5% shooting percentage. Then again, within two seasons, Guentzel now has as many playoff games as many others that have played hockey for almost a decade. The most comical of the bunch is the fact that Olli Jokinen has 1,231 career regular season games in his 17-year NHL career, but only six career playoff games to add to his accolades. So as much as we want to cry out “small sample size” in the postseason, we do also have to recognize that small sample size monsters tend to roam more freely because there just aren’t enough opportunities for mean regressions to happen. And with his name already on the Stanley Cup, Guentzel’s legend is already sealed by the hearts and minds of Penguins fans.
For a note on the Flyers, I hope their fan base is wise in realizing that this season was a good learning experience, as I described after their shellacking in game one. It’s critical to understand that general manager Ron Hextall has been playing the long game for this franchise from the word go. As we saw with how former general manager Paul Holmgren and NOW former Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher turned out, once you start making high-risk high reward signings without coming away with either a Stanley Cup or continually strong plan Bs, it sets the franchise back massively and it limits their potential for getting better in the long haul.
Take it from their arch-rivals, Pittsburgh. They were fortunate to have a few mid to late round draft picks in Guentzel, Connor Sheary and Matt Murray come through. Along with that, the team was able to get rid of the most financially poisonous asset in the Mike Johnston era in Rob Scuderi and got a more mobile Trevor Daley as well as seduce the crap out of Anaheim to trading away Carl Hagelin. Add in recently that Pittsburgh only gave Murray a $3.5 million cap hit to his second contract, got rid of Marc Andre-Fleury’s expensive contract in the Las Vegas expansion draft and used that cap space to pick up Derek Brassard at the trade deadline and you see a front office that continues to find every advantage and take it at will. I haven’t even had the chance to talk about what would happen to this team once Daniel Sprong and Zack Ashton-Reese end up making contributions to this team.
That’s how Philadelphia has to continue to operate. As much as their fan base will continue to be mortified with their goaltending, it was smart for them to have Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth and Petr Mrazek be cheap stopgaps until either Alex Lyon or Carter Hart answer the bell in the long term. Now Valtteri Filppula’s contract runs out and it is just in time for Travis Konecny and Nolan Patrick to be given much bigger roles. Ivan Provorov will have more opportunities to show that he has what it takes to be a top-tier defenseman. Just please don’t give him the Mike Green treatment! You’re smarter than that. As a Radko Gudas as a top-four option? We’ll see. But in the meantime, more battles will be fought with this crop of players. Thanks for making another Pennsylvania rivalry a fun one and long may this team continue to develop positively. Just don’t develop or bring in any idiots that will have to fight Tom Wilson and you’ll be fine.