Why Jake Guentzel Is Enjoying a Career Year

Sidney Crosby, who recently scored his 500th career goal, remains one of the best centers in the world at 34 years of age. As his scoring rate has dipped, his three-zone performance has risen to ensure that he still provides excellent overall impact. His stellar numbers—both raw and underlying—are a testament to his dedication and attention to detail. He’s an all-time great for a reason.

However, we’d be remiss not to mention another factor in his recent brilliance: He may have a stronger rapport with his current linemates than any pair of wingers that came before them.

Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust aren’t as good as Marian Hossa was, but they fit Crosby’s style like a glove. The former, in particular, is perpetually in sync with his veteran pivot, initiating give-and-gos and sneaking his way open to hammer defenses on a nightly basis.

Through the first half of 2021-22, that synergy has hit overdrive and yielded Guentzel’s highest point-per-game mark to date. Though he’s mainly known as a finisher, he often displays the trio’s undeniable chemistry via quick and clever link-up plays in both the neutral and offensive zones. He just knows where his linemates are instinctively:

That connection allows Pittsburgh’s top line to operate as a well-oiled machine. They don’t require an additional beat to survey the landscape before making a decision. The puck doesn’t stop and start. They just…flow.

As such, defenders are provided little time to settle into their posture. This results in a fair few odd-man rushes. But even in slower scenarios and tighter quarters, their interplay keeps opponents on their heels. They have the skill to conjure a flash in the pan and the patience to let an opportunity simmer on the back burner until it’s ready to spring onto the opposition. There isn’t a shred of ego in Guentzel’s game either. He’s more than happy to make the small play that builds up to a bigger one down the road.

Unsurprisingly, this ability to dole out one devastating blow or death by a thousand cuts is reflected in the numbers. In their second season together as a unit, Crosby, Guentzel and Rust are controlling 55.1% of the expected goals and 61.5% of the actual goals at 5-on-5. Their proficiency is up across the board from a year ago.

But Guentzel isn’t merely adept at linking up with his teammates. He has a real knack for helping them link up with him too:

On the strength of his ceaseless movement and hockey sense, he ranks among the best forwards in the league at working himself free from defenders. His spacing is simply phenomenal. He recognizes when to lurk in the shadows, when to open up for a one-timer and when to shorten the distance between himself and the puck-carrier to facilitate a pass.

And if defenders are still stuck to his hip after all that effort, he’ll turn his attention toward the crease and create havoc by crashing the net. He never stops. He always finds a way to present a quality target or option to his teammates.

This is particularly valuable when paired with Guentzel’s finishing ability:

To put it plainly, the 27-year-old knows how to tickle the twine. Sure, he possesses a great shot, but the work rate that lies at the heart of his off-puck movement informs his scoring too. He thinks on his feet and doesn’t quit on any touch. Forget about setting up shop at a specific location on the ice. Whether or not he receives a pass in his wheelhouse, he’s getting a solid bid on goal—be it a one-time blast, a wicked wrister, a greasy rebound or a deflection.

He’s versatile, crafty and relentless. He can hurt you from anywhere in the offensive zone in any style of hockey, which makes silencing him awfully troublesome. It doesn’t help that Guentzel is an underrated passer as well. Especially from the slot, he has the vision to make the extra pass when the opposition is committed to stopping him:

While he prefers calling his own number, he doesn’t insist on it. Give him room, and he’ll rip it. Collapse around him, and he’ll dish to a teammate in prime real estate. He’s a true dual threat and his stat line spells out his balanced approach: 25 goals and 26 assists in 45 games.

Guentzel is pacing for his most prolific goal-scoring campaign yet while shooting at a similar clip to previous seasons. This is no fluke. Moreover, he’s a capable playmaker and active component of one of the league’s most dangerous trios. Instead of waiting around for the play to come to him, he’s comfortable pressing the action himself.

In other words, if you couldn’t already tell, he’s become so much more than Crosby’s trigger man. He’s a top-flight catalyst in his own right.

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