NASHVILLE – Jake Guentzel was nearly knocked over by the hug.
It was his brother, on the ice at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, moments after Guentzel skated the Stanley Cup for the first time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Soon, the rest of his family crowded around him, and the celebration for the 22-year-old kid from Omaha, Nebraska, began.
“They said they’re just so proud of me and that they love me. To hear that from them … it means the world,” he said. “It’s crazy how this year went. Lot of ups and downs. This was definitely the way to end it.”
Last June, Guentzel was a face at the Penguins’ prospect camp, with 11 AHL games to his credit after three seasons at Nebraska-Omaha in the NCAA. In January, Guentzel was a full-time member of the Penguins, playing on Sidney Crosby’s wing. On Sunday, Guentzel was a Stanley Cup champion, and wasn’t a passenger on that journey: He had 13 goals and eight assists, leading the Penguins and the playoffs in goal scoring.
It’s not every season that a rookie plays himself into the Conn Smythe conversation, and Guentzel may have actually had a shot at being playoff MVP were it not for a unproductive Eastern Conference Final round – and the presence of some guy named Crosby.
“You come to the rink everyday and you get to play with him. It’s pretty special,” said Guentzel.
Crosby and Guentzel played together for the majority of these playoffs. Like anyone else that’s skated with the Penguins captain, Guentzel was relegated to co-star, despite outscoring Crosby for a good chunk of the playoffs.
This was never more evident than at a press conference during the Stanley Cup Final in Nashville, when Crosby and Guentzel sat at a table and took questions. Guentzel answered the first one. The next dozen were directed to Crosby, and Guentzel simply sat there listening, kind of staring off into space as his captain addressed each query. And then the press conference ended, with Guentzel having last spoken about 15 minutes earlier.
Suddenly, the unmistakable voice of NBC announcer Doc Emrick cut through the room:
“Jake, you’re a good hockey player and we like you!”
There were laughs, including from Guentzel and Crosby.
Please recall a time when Sidney Crosby was viewed as a player that didn’t always gel with his veteran linemates. That time was actually just two years ago, when Phil Kessel was seemingly acquired to play with Crosby but the two didn’t click.
Perhaps, then, there’s a reason Crosby seems to work so well with younger players like Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust – not only do they have the pace to skate with him, but there aren’t years-long tendencies built up in their hockey brains. Crosby adapts to them, they adapt to Crosby. At least that’s coach Mike Sullivan’s theory.
“I think he’s a guy that is very complementary, regardless of who we put him with, he has the ability to adapt his game to the players that play with him,” said Sullivan recently. “I think one of the things that allows our young kids to play with Sid is how he interacts with these guys. He’s very encouraging. He’s very supportive, and these guys, they so look up to him for what he’s accomplished in the game and the player and the person that he is, that they’ll go through a wall for him.”
That’s something Guentzel echoed after winning the Cup in Game 6.
“We’re so fortunate how the older guys take us in and make the younger guys feel welcome. They do a great job. That’s why we have this success,” he said. “The leadership we had here is special. I’ll remember these guys for the rest of my life.”
The Penguins will no doubt remember the postseason Guentzel had. Was he a product of Crosby? Sure, overall. But his 11 even-strength goals are tied with Marian Gaborik in 2013-14 for the second most since 1994, eclipsed only by Joe Sakic’s 12 in 1995-96, per Travis Yost. That’s rare company to keep for any player.
But, again, this is a rookie, just over a year removed from Nebraska-Omaha.
“We knew how good he was,” said GM Jim Rutherford after the Cup win. “I actually thought he’d get more goals,”
Rutherford, more than anyone, knows the value of what Guentzel contributed to the Penguins’ second Cup in two seasons. After all, the trick to creating this championship team in a salary cap era has been cheap labor.
The salary cap is roughly $73 million. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang alone combine for a $32.25 million cap hit, or roughly 44 percent of it. By virtue of drafting well, and developing players ever better, they Penguins were able to win a second Stanley Cup with no less than six contributors making less than a million each – including Guentzel, who has two more years on his entry level contract, and now has one Stanley Cup ring.
“We were fortunate. We had some guys that were being developed,” said Rutherford.
And they also had a captain in Sidney Crosby that helped that development along.
After Game 6 and winning his second Conn Smythe Trophy, Crosby was asked which Penguin he would have had on his MVP ballot. Guentzel’s was one of the names he mentioned. “A young guy to come in like that and score the way he did is pretty incredible,” he said.
Indeed it is. And Guentzel knows it, and still can’t believe it’s a reality, thanks to a stunning late-game goal by Patric Hornqvist that helped eliminate the Nashville Predators and gave the Penguins a chance to skate the Cup again.
“I think I almost jumped through the roof,” said Guentzel. “I mean … dream come true. You think about that your whole life. To do it in front of my parents … it’s something I’ll never forget.”
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