PITTSBURGH — Jake Guentzel‘s roller-coaster season is about to take another unlikely turn: postseason participant.
The Penguins All-Star forward has joined a handful of teammates on the ice as part of Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play program and figures to be ready when Pittsburgh faces Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs sometime this summer.
Guentzel’s breakout year appeared to be over when he took an awkward spill on Dec. 30 following his 20th goal of the season. He crashed into the end boards a split-second after collecting his 200th career point when he accidentally tripped over the stick of Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot.
The 25-year-old – whose play during the opening months kept Pittsburgh afloat amid myriad injuries to high-profile players – clutched his side as he skated to the bench and underwent surgery the following day. With his rehab expected to last until late April or early May, Guentzel feared he might not be back until 2020-21.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the NHL to pause its season in mid-March and giving Guentzel an unexpected window to return.
”Not sure what would have happened if the season would have played out,” Guentzel said Wednesday.
Under normal conditions, Guentzel would have needed the Penguins to advance at least one round and maybe two in the playoffs if he wanted to have a shot at rejoining the club. This season, however, has been anything but normal.
His availability gives Pittsburgh another proven postseason performer. His innate hockey sense and instant rapport with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby helped Guentzel score 13 goals during the 2017 playoffs as Pittsburgh captured its second straight Stanley Cup.
The team Guentzel returns to could look a bit like the one that defeated Nashville in six games in the finals three years ago. During Guentzel’s absence, the team brought back winger Conor Sheary, who played on the ”Sid and the Kids” line in the 2016-17 season.
”We feed off each other, we know each other,” Guentzel said. ”If we have that opportunity, hopefully we have time to get that chemistry back.”
There’s still a long way to go to get to that point. Then again, the fact that it’s even on the table for Guentzel is promising. The joy of being named to the All-Star team on Dec. 30 for the first time was replaced hours later by pain and doubt as he skated to the bench clutching his right shoulder after smacking into the boards.
”You’re not really sure what the severity of the injury is,” Guentzel said. ”Just tried to get off the ice and get back to the locker room as fast as I can, because I knew something wasn’t good. In my head it was a blur. It was hard to go through something like that.”
He is still reticent to get into specifics surrounding the nature of the injury, saying only ”from what I heard, it was pretty significant” while remaining thankful he was able to get his head and neck out of harm’s way before the crash.
While listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Guentzel is comfortable putting his body in harm’s way against bigger defenders. He is not sure if he’ll be hesitant to mix it up whenever contact is allowed.
”It might be there, it’s just hard to think about right now and hard to process,” Guentzel said.
It’s hardly the only thing Guentzel is having trouble wrapping his mind around. He grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs. The death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers last month – and the ensuing wave of protests and call for change in the aftermath – has been eye-opening for a player who is typically economical with his words, preferring his actions to do the talking for him.
Not so much anymore. He called the manner of Floyd’s death ”disturbing.”
”My eyes have definitely been open and I’m definitely committed to educating myself and making a difference out there,” Guentzel said.
It’s not the only area in which Guentzel and the rest of the NHL are getting an education. The league is trying to be pragmatic about its health protocols as it attempts to resume the season. Still, there are several issues that need to be settled. And for players whose mental and physical health rely so heavily on routine, there remains a sense of wariness about what lies ahead.
”It’s hard for us to not know what is going on with all this unknown of this COVID,” Guentzel said. ”I think we’re all a little on edge as to what is going to happen.”
Penguins playoff injury updates: Bad news for Bjugstad, good for Guentzel
While the Penguins gear up for a (pandemic-permitting) playoff run, they won’t be able to pencil Nick Bjugstad into their lineup. The Penguins announced that bad news for Bjugstad alongside other injury updates on Wednesday. On the bright side, things are more optimistic for Jake Guentzel.
Penguins playoff injury update presents mixed bag: Bjugstad, Guentzel, and more
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford explained that Bjugstad underwent surgery after a setback in his rehab.
This closes out a miserable 2019-20 season for Bjugstad. Things fell off the rails early when the 27-year-old forward suffered an injury to his core area in October. As Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review explains, Bjugstad tried to play through the issue, only to eventually opt for surgery.
The Penguins announced that this latest procedure involved spinal surgery, and Bjugstad will miss at least eight weeks.
Looking at Bjugstad’s stats almost seems unfair. He only mustered a goal and an assist in his 11 games played, but who knows how healthy he was? It remains to be seen if Bjugstad can rebound in 2020-21; after that, his $4.1 million cap hit will expire.
The Penguins shared other injury news, including an update that is fuzzier but potentially big:
When Jake Guentzel required surgery for his injured shoulder just before the new year, it sounded like he could miss serious playoff time. Then the COVID-19 pandemic truly struck North America. While Rutherford didn’t guarantee a Guentzel return, he did sound positive on Wednesday.
“We still have a ways to go before we start playing, so we are optimistic that [Guentzel] will be available to play,” Rutherford said.
Getting an All-Star forward back might soothe some of the Penguins’ irritation at needing to participate in the qualifying round. Some of the irritation.
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.
They are all into their 30s at this point, and there will come a time in the not-too-distant future that they really start to slow down, but for now they remain the foundation of a Stanley Cup contending team.
Along with them there is a pretty strong supporting cast in place, and one that is probably a lot younger than you might realize. Even though they have made a habit of trading draft picks and prospects to strengthen their championship chases (as they should have) they have done a nice job replenishing the cupboard around their superstars. Especially over the past year.
Jake Guentzel (signed for five more years at $6 million per season) has become a star and one of their best home-grown players in years, while John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Jared McCann have been strong additions from the outside.
Bryan Rust has shown what he is capable of in an expanded role and carries a very affordable salary cap hit for the next two years, while Jason Zucker seems like an outstanding fit in their top-six while also being signed for three more full seasons after this one.
Brian Dumoulin remains a perfect complement for Letang on the top defense pair (while also being signed for three more seasons) while they have two very good young goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry that are still under team control for the next few years.
They have some long-term salary cap restrictions, but that has been a constant theme for them for the better part of the Crosby-Malkin era. It just comes with the territory of being a contending team with superstar players. They do have a couple of contracts that will probably get dumped one way or another before they expire (Jack Johnson, Nick Bjugstad, maybe even Brandon Tanev a couple of years down the line).
The salary cap crunch could also create a little headache this offseason as they work to re-sign some key restricted free agents like McCann, Murray, and Jarry.
The latter two also create an interesting situation because both have the potential and ability to be outstanding goalies in the NHL. They also have both showed it (Murray more than Jarry). But juggling that contract situation is going to be interesting, especially as they figure out what sort of financial commitment to make with Murray.
He is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. But he has had some ups and downs over the past two seasons. How much can they commit to him, and for how long?
While they have done a great job of having a steady pipeline of talent come through their system to complement the stars, there is going to come a point where they will need to develop another truly high-end player when Crosby and/or Malkin are no longer able to carry the team. That time is not yet here, but it will eventually arrive.
The bottom line is the Penguins still have a couple of Hall of Famers and All-Star level players on their roster. They are still players that can take over and dominate games. As long as they have that, they have the most important ingredient for contending.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel are the type of players you win championships with. The Penguins have won multiple championships with them and been one of the league’s most successful teams by every objective measure. There will come a time when the window really does close on this core and a rebuild is needed, but that time is not here just yet. It may not be here for a couple of more years.
For as much money as they have committed to their core, and for as tight as their salary cap situation may be, they do have some pretty significant long-term contracts that are team-and cap-friendly. The trio of Guentzel, Rust, and Dumoulin is an outstanding secondary group of stars, and together they account for less than $14 million against the cap for the next couple of years. Even Crosby and Malkin are making far less than they could be. Every little bit of savings counts and helps make the rest of the team that much stronger.
They also have Mike Sullivan behind the bench who has done some of his best work this season.
With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
General manager Jim Rutherford faced some intense — and at times very justified — criticism for some of his roster moves before and during the 2018-19 season. He rebounded in a big way this past offseason. The signing of Brandon Tanev turned out better than expected, while they seemed to have parted ways with Phil Kessel at the exact right time. The most important move, though, was the acquisition of defenseman John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers this past summer for the bargain basement price of a conditional sixth-round draft pick.
The Penguins immediately liked Marino’s potential thanks to an outstanding training camp performance, but no one could have possibly anticipated the impact he has made.
Marino has helped completely transform the Penguins’ defense, adding mobility, puck skills, and shutdown defense to the team’s top-four. He has quickly become a significant part of their blue line and given his entry-level contract situation is going to be a steal against the salary cap in the short-term.
He should be considered part of their long-term core.
This was always going to be an important year for Schultz and the Penguins.
From a team perspective, they needed him to have a big year to help solidify their defense after he was limited to just 29 games a year ago.
When Schultz has been at his best in Pittsburgh he has been a productive player offensively and a major asset on the power play. He needed to be put into a specific role, but he has at times excelled at it.
He was also entering a contract year with something to prove. A big year for him would have made him a hot commodity on the free agent market this summer. But it did not really work out that way.
Schultz not only missed more time due to injury, but he struggled at times when he was in the lineup at both ends of the ice. He has never been a shutdown player defensively, but his ability to produce offensively was always a positive. But this season even that aspect of his game disappeared for him. It has ended up being his most disappointing season in Pittsburgh and it could not have come at a worse time for him given his contract situation.
The Penguins have always had high hopes for Tristan Jarry and given his draft position (first goalie taken in his draft class) he has always come with a lot of pedigree. The potential has always been there. Still, he was facing an uphill battle when it came to making the opening roster this season with Matt Murray (a two-time Stanley Cup winner) and Casey DeSmith (who had just signed a long-term contract extension) in place.
Because Jarry counted less against the salary cap, he ended up starting the season as the backup to Murray and used that opportunity to start playing his way into the starting position.
Or at least challenging for it.
Jarry has been the Penguins’ most productive goalie this season (.921 save percentage to Murray’s .899), started to get the bulk of the starts in the middle of the season, and played his way into the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.
Both goalies are restricted free agents after this season and it is going to be fascinating to watch how this situation plays out.
The non-stop injuries
It is not just that the Penguins have had to deal with a ton of injuries this season that has been a disappointment for them. It is the fact that it has been their top players.
Just a quick run down on which players have missed games this season.
That is a lot. Through it all, the Penguins have remained in contention for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, or at the very least, home-ice advantage in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all season.
Bryan Rust has a breakout season offensively
Since becoming a regular in the lineup during the 2015-16 season Rust has been an outstanding “glue” guy in the Penguins’ lineup. He can play all over the lineup and contribute in any role. He is not out of place on the first line, he can handle himself defensively, he is an outstanding penalty killer, and he just does everything well.