Courtesy of Point Park University

Guentzel has ‘always proved people wrong’

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Jake Guentzel smiles at practice Friday, in Tampa, Fla. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

PHILADELPHIA -- Yep, Jake Guentzel was that kid.

That June day in Newark six years ago, the then-18-year-old rink rat sat in the stands for the second day of the NHL Draft. Sporting his best suit and tie, with his mom, Sally, and his dad, Mike, Guentzel waited, then waited some more.

If you've never been, let's just say Day 2 of the NHL Draft is a little less formal and a lot less glamorous than the first. During the first round, the general manager of each selecting team announces their top pick from a podium in front of a full arena. With stars in their eyes, the teenagers proudly step on stage to slip on the jerseys of their respective new teams, their names hastily Velcroed to the back. Prospects pose for pics with Gary Bettman. Mothers cry. The crowd cheers. And on it goes 31 times.

Day 2, rounds two through seven, is a bit of a blur. It's a getaway day as team officials make a beeline for summer vacations as soon as the last pick is made. In between, the names of prospects -- most of who don't bother to show up and most of who will never skate a shift in the NHL -- are announced in almost rapid-fire succession.

Of course, none of that deterred Guentzel from attending. He just had to be there. He figured he'd be drafted, it was just a matter of when and where.

Guentzel's dad, Mike, was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota at the time, and certainly knew the game, knew the league and knew his son wasn't about to be taken in the first round. "Just didn't want to see him slip down to the fifth or below," he thought.

"With the 76th pick, from the USHL ..."

Wait? Did they just say 'USHL?'

Guentzel's ears perked. For different reasons, so too did the Penguins' management.

" ... the New York Islanders select Taylor Cammarata from Waterloo."

Then ...

"With the 77th pick, from the USHL, Pittsburgh selects Jake Guentzel of Sioux City." 

"It was exciting," the now-24-year-old Guentzel recalled. "Just not knowing where you're going to go, but a good feeling when they announce you. Definitely a night you remember."

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Guentzel's road to the NHL didn't end there and it certainly didn't begin there.

Jake had been a Minnesota high school stud at Hill-Murray where he emerged as one of the best players in the "State of Hockey." As a junior in 2012 he led the Pioneers to the championship game of the prestigious state tournament. But in order to face better competition and to further his career, he knew he had to bolt the Twin Cities for his senior year to play for Sioux City.

The Musketeers had drafted him 46th overall in the USHL draft two years earlier. As an 18-year-old, he put up 73 points, 43 of which came during a record-tying 21-game point streak to close out the season. That performance earned Guentzel rookie of the year honors and put him on the radar of several NHL teams for the upcoming draft. There was little question about Guentzel's skill set but there was plenty about his size.

The Jets, Blues and Islanders had all shown an interest in the 153-pound Guentzel but the Penguins had done their homework. Just for good measure, they went as far as to have Guentzel's bone structure examined to project future growth.

"Small, weak," Guentzel said when asked to describe himself at the time. "People didn't think I would grow because I was smaller at the time, too."

But the Guentzels also had an ally in their corner. Scott Bell, the Penguins' regional scout, had played for Mike at 'The U' and had known Jake since the kid could tie his own skate laces. He could vouch for Guentzel and his bloodline.

"We were measuring the size of his brain and it was bigger than anybody's, that's what stood out with him," Bell told DKPittsburghSports.com this week. "Also, his competitiveness. He always went to the hard areas. He always came back for a beating. He never backed down. He was relentless. He might have had a smaller body but he played a big man's game."

Because of that, selling Penguins management on Guentzel wasn't too difficult.

Bell recalled that Randy Sexton, the team's director of amateur scouting at the time, was on board from the start. Sexton, an Ontario native, said that Guentzel reminded him of Neal Broten. For any Minnesotan, that's high praise. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Broten is a legend. After starring at the University of Minnesota, he won gold at Lake Placid in 1980 and then went on to play over 1,000 games in the NHL.

"For a Minnesota guy, that blew me away," Bell was saying. "When Randy used that comparable to Jake Guentzel, that resonated with me."

At the start of the third round, GM Ray Shero conferred with Bell, inquiring again about Guentzel before rubber-stamping the pick.

"He said 'If you believe in him, then I'm going with what you believe in. I hired to you to do a job and that's your job,'" Bell said. "Ray's a good leader because he lets people do their job."

When Cammarata "from the USHL" was announced as the 76th pick, Bell momentarily held his breath, but only for one more pick.

"I was elated, I thought third round was a really good spot for him," Mike Guentzel recalled.

But being a third-round pick hardly guarantees an NHL career. Of the 31 players selected in the third round in 2013, 13 never played a game in the NHL, including Cammarata, who had won USHL rookie of the year the season before Guentzel.

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Dean Blais wasn't surprised that Guentzel sat through the torturous monotony that is Day 2 of the NHL Draft. If it was hockey-related, Guentzel -- a former stick boy at the University of Minnesota -- was all in.

Blais would know. He was Guentzel's college coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Every morning Blais reported for work, he was soon greeted by the blonde-haired kid at the rink.

"He wanted to make sure that his sticks and skates and tape and everything were ready to go for practice," Blais was saying. "He wanted to know what we were going to do. I was thinking, 'Geez, was this kid going to school at all?'”

"I was usually the first one there and Jake was right behind me. There wasn't a whole lot of talking. He was all business. Good team guy. Not all that vocal, but on the ice he was one of the top players I coached."

Guentzel had a 3.0 GPA or better every semester at UNO, but hockey was his primary focus of study. It runs in the family. Both of Guentzel's older brothers -- Ryan and Gabe -- played D-I and pro. Hell, Blais once tried to recruit Mike to play for him at the University of North Dakota in the early '80s. Years later, he had to settle for adding him to his coaching staff in Omaha for the 2010-11 season. When Mike returned to Minnesota to join the Golden Gophers staff in 2012, he made one stipulation: He didn't want to coach his youngest son.

"Jake's the only one of my sons that could have played at Minnesota, he was good enough," Mike was saying. "But with me coaching there and the social media and all that stuff, I didn't think it was a wise move for him or for me. I thought it was better to play somewhere else and let him do his own thing."

That's not to say Mike, now a pro scout for the Coyotes, didn't offer his son tips. He did and still does, but he also knows when to give Jake his space.

With the Golden Gophers scratched off the list, Jake's final college choices came down to Minnesota-Duluth, Denver and UNO. Jake was born in Nebraska in 1994, while his dad had been coaching the USHL Omaha Lancers. With a chance to play for Blais in the city of his birth, Omaha was the easy call.

"Dean Blais, he did a lot for me and my career," Guentzel said. "Pretty thankful for him."

Blais had won a pair of national championships at North Dakota with players like Zach Parise and guided the U.S. with John Carlson and Chris Kreider to the gold medal at the 2010 World Junior Championship. He preached a style of offense that suited Guentzel's skill set as a 19-year-old.

"He let the guys go take chances; high-octane offense from first shift to last shift," Mike Guentzel was saying. "You could say there was some structure, but not an overly-structured game. He pushed offense and he allowed Jake from day one, like it is here (in Pittsburgh), to play and play with the best players."

In his first season, Guentzel set a school record for assists by a freshman with 27 to go along with seven goals. He doubled his goal total the following season as the Mavericks advanced to the Frozen Four for the first time in program history. In UNO's 4-1 national semifinal loss to Providence, Guentzel scored Nebraska-Omaha's lone goal. The following season as a junior, he put up 46 points in 35 games, seemingly all of them coming in the final month of the season.

Even then, people took notice of Guentzel's flair for the dramatic.

"When the game's on the line, he's always found a way to come up with the big play or score a big goal," said Blais. "He's always been that type of player. The more important the game, the better he plays."

But having success at the NCAA Division I level doesn't guarantee a successful pro career. Omaha is better known as a beach in Normandy or what Peyton Manning barks at the line of scrimmage, not a D-I program that churns out NHL stars.

Guentzel still had to prove himself.

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The Penguins knew they were getting a good player, albeit an undersized one. You can put on weight and add muscle later, was the thinking. And indeed after being drafted, Guentzel grew an inch and packed 20 pounds onto his slight frame during his time in Omaha.

"He's figured out the strength and diet and things like that," Mike said. "It's a big adjustment. It wasn't God-given. He's always grinded and battled and tried to overcome those things."

But you can't teach good. Bell says he saw something in Guentzel that many others didn't.

"I thought he could have played with either of our top guys, (Evgeni) Malkin or (Sidney) Crosby," Bell said. "He had the mental capacity, the grit and determination. Crosby is so smart, so quick and so clever. I thought Jake could fit in with him or Malkin. I thought maybe more Malkin. I didn't know which one it would be, but he could potentially do it."

After Omaha's season ended in the spring of 2016, Guentzel signed with Pittsburgh. As Crosby and Co. were winning their first Stanley Cup since 2009, his future linemate was finishing out the season in the AHL by scoring six points in 11 games. The following season he was assigned to Wilkes-Barre but lasted there barely two months after torching the AHL for 21 goals in just 33 games.

On Nov. 21, 2016, Guentzel was recalled to Pittsburgh and scored twice against the Rangers in his NHL debut with Mike, Ryan and Sally, in attendance:

In the spring of 2017, playing on a line with Crosby, as it turned out, Guentzel cemented his place in franchise lore by scoring a league-best 13 goals in 25 playoff games as the Penguins repeated as Cup champions. Guentzel, the guy who scored 16 goals in 40 regular season games, took third in Conn Smythe voting.

According to Blais, the one part of Jake's game that required refining from college to pro was his willingness to shoot the puck. That would seem odd to those who have seen Guentzel in the NHL. But when you play with Crosby, the best playmaker of his generation, that makes it a little easier.

"He complements Crosby and Crosby complements Jake," Blais said.

The two have since been inseparable. In 55 games this season, Guentzel has 26 goals and 51 points with Crosby picking up a point on 30 of them. They've also been used together as a tandem this season on the penalty kill.

"You play with Sid and it's an unbelievable attribute to have the skill to play with this guy, but you can be intimidated," Mike Guentzel said. "But Jake's not intimidated to the point where he's going to pass, pass, pass. He understands the give-and-go. Sid has a relationship with him to talk to him about being a hockey player and making a hockey play. And Jake's smart enough to realize that."

And to show the spring of 2017 was no fluke, Guentzel scored 10 goals in 12 postseason games last spring, including a four-goal game to close out the Flyers in the first round.

Again, as the games get bigger, so does Guentzel.

"I can see it in his eyes," his father said. "He knows how meaningful it is. It doesn't scare Jake. That's the one attribute that he has, he's not afraid of the moment."

Whether it's his college coach, the scout who drafted him, or Mike Sullivan, when they talk of Guentzel they speak in almost reverential tones about his compete level and hockey IQ, but mostly his fearlessness.

"He just has a way about him," Bell says. "He's not afraid of the moment. He's never been afraid of the moment as a player. Some guys, the lights get brighter and the stage gets bigger, they don't always come to perform. And Jake's always been the kind of kid who performs when the game’s on the line and the stakes get higher."

As scouting jobs go, the Penguins "knocked the ball out of the park" in taking a chance on Guentzel. While Bell is proud of his work in landing Guentzel, he deflects the credit.

"Everybody contributed, I'm just a piece," said Bell, who after leaving the Penguins following the 2017 Cup run to be an assistant at the University of Minnesota is now scouting for the Maple Leafs. "Just a spoke on the wheel and we had that wheel rolling, and it was rolling really well."

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Nearly six years after being drafted, Guentzel is one of just 43 players, out of the 211 players selected in the 2013 draft, to play in 100-plus NHL games. Needless to say, if every team had to do that draft all over again, Guentzel would have gone higher. Much higher.

Of that 43, only the Avalanche's Nathan MacKinnon (.88) and the Flames' Sean Monahan (.77) -- the first and sixth overall picks -- have better points per game averages than Guentzel (.74). And neither of those guys has a ring.

"I don't think anybody thought he could be an NHL All-Star," Bell said. "If we thought he was that good, we'd have drafted him in the first round.

"Now, to the level he's done it is magnificent. He's a Stanley Cup champion and close to scoring 30 goals. But Jake Guentzel's always proved people wrong his whole way up and he's always proved himself right the whole way."

You're probably never going to see a documentary called "The Guentzel Seventy-Six" where Jake breaks down, admitting that his third-round draft position somehow fuels his fire. He's quite content where he is.

And why wouldn't he be?

Last month, Guentzel -- one of a handful of young stars around the NHL on expiring entry-level contracts -- was awarded a five-year, $30 million contract that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2024. When that deal is up, he'll be 28 and in his prime with a chance to earn an even bigger payout.

With his $6 million AAV next season -- which will put him behind only Malkin, Crosby, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel -- the skinny kid who was picked in the third round has become a franchise cornerstone. After signing him, Jim Rutherford said that Guentzel could only be scratching the surface of what's already been a productive career.

"I just think he'll get stronger and more composed and more confident," Bell says. "You can see it already."

As a coach, Mike Guentzel says his son needs to work on his lower body strength and protect the puck better down low. Of course that's just a dad talking.

His son has a shot at a 40-goal season, which would be the first by a Penguins winger since James Neal.

Jake says he doesn't have any statistics in mind. The only goal he's shooting for is his next goal.

"The thing I've worked on is to be consistent for a whole season," he says. "If you have a bad game, you have to move on fast and stay confident with yourself and know that you belong here."

No one can ever argue that Guentzel doesn't belong.

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