Jake Guentzel is only two goals away from reaching the 40-goal mark during the 2018-19 season, and if he gets there at some point over the next six games will join a very short list of Penguins to do it over the past 25 years.
That list, as of this moment, includes only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux, Alexei Kovalev, James Neal, and Petr Nedved. That is a pretty impressive list to be a part of and features some of the most talented and productive goal scorers the team has ever seen.
It has only been done twice (Crosby in 2016-17 and Malkin in 2017-18) since 2012, so it would be a pretty big deal if he gets there this season. Not only because of how few players have done it recently, but also because, hey, we love nice round numbers in sports, and that is a big milestone for a player to hit in today’s NHL.
So far, his new contract extension that he signed earlier this season is looking like it has the potential to be a bargain for the Penguins as he continues to excel on the top-line next to Crosby. Had the Penguins given him more regular power play time this season he might already be pushing the 45-goal (or more) mark right now.
Overall, it’s been an incredible season for Guentzel who has taken a huge step forward in his development from “good young player with a knack for scoring big goals in the playoffs,” to “outstanding top-line winger.”
It is not just the goal total itself that has put him at that level.
It is that he has done it without getting much power play time with the top unit. Among the NHL’s top-30 goal scorers this season Guentzel is one of just four that have fewer than eight power play goals this season (Johnny Gaudreau at 18th, Brendan Gallagher at 24th, and Mark Stone at 29th). He is the only one in the top-17.
His 31 even-strength goals are the fourth-most in the NHL and are already more than he scored over the first two years of his career.
He is one of the smartest forwards on the team and has seen his overall game improve dramatically, always in the right position and always exactly where he needs to be to make a play.
Because he plays next to Crosby there is always going to be some skepticism about his production, and until this season I admit I kept that in the back of my mind. Just how good is he really without Crosby, and how much of his production is just the normal boost you see players get when they play next to an NHL legend?
There is almost certainly something to that because, let’s be honest, Crosby does make people around him better. But you still have to actually put the puck in the net and finish the plays he sets up for you, and there really hasn’t ever been a winger in Pittsburgh that has performed this consistently well next to Crosby or scored at this level.
Really, the only player that might come close to matching this level of production is the two-year stretch Chris Kunitz had between 2012-13 and 2013-14 when he scored 77 goals in 156 games. Even then, Kunitz got a healthy boost from being on the team’s top-power play unit for both of those seasons (22 of those goals came on the man advantage).
This all brings me to the realization that Jake Guentzel might be the best long-term fit Sidney Crosby has ever had on his wing.
Marian Hossa might be the best player that Crosby has ever had on his wing, and quite honestly, the two looked like they may have been able to make magic alongside each other had it worked out long-term, but Hossa only played 32 total games with the Penguins.
Phil Kessel was supposed to be that player, but the two never really seemed to click.
For as good as Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis were, they never really came close to matching what Guentzel appears to be capable of.
For years Penguins fans were screaming for the team to find a “winger for Crosby,” always looking for ways to acquire one and finding the perfect fit that could help him dominate for years at a time. He has had some really good ones over the years, and he has also made a few along the way because he is that good, but in Guentzel the Penguins may have finally found the perfect long-term fit that is not only going to contribute, but also produce huge numbers.