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Decade Review: Welcome to Pittsburgh, Guentzelvania

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

After the Penguins announced that they had selected forward Jake Guentzel with the 77th overall pick in the third round on Day 2 of the 2013 NHL Draft at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, I went to the podium where he would eventually speak with the media and waited.

Tweet from @penguins: With the 77th pick in the draft the #Pens select center Jake Guentzel from Sioux City #NHLDraft

After he arrived, I peppered him with questions that included: "How does it feel to be drafted by the Penguins? What kind of player are you? Being a little bit smaller, how do you overcome that? What was this past season like? What's the next step?"

And now, looking back on it, my favorite one of the bunch: "Can you imagine what it will be like playing with 'Sid' and 'Geno' and those guys?"

"Yeah, it's unbelievable," he said with a smile.

I never would have predicted that this small blonde 18-year-old kid from Minnesota, constantly overlooked at every level because of his size despite his obvious talent, would eventually become one of the NHL's elite players and goal scorers, a core player with the Penguins, a winger who's had success with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and, of course, a key part of their 2017 Stanley Cup championship. Guentzel's emergence is, without question, one of the storylines that stands out the most from the past decade.

Listed at just 5-foot-9 and 151 pounds, it was obvious from the start that Guentzel would need time to develop. He went on to spend the next three years at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and while we checked in with him every now and then, for the most part Guentzel was quietly working to grow and improve his game.

But following his junior year, Jake, his father Mike and his agent Ben Hankinson met with Jason Botterill, then the Penguins' associate general manager - who was trying to sell them on the young forward foregoing his senior season to turn professional with Pittsburgh. Ultimately, Botterill convinced them it was the right choice.

From there, Guentzel went to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he scored a team-leading five goals and 14 points in 10 Calder Cup playoff games. And despite all of the excitement that was going on with the Penguins as they were in the midst of their 2016 Stanley Cup championship run, what he did there still caught everyone's attention.

That fall, Guentzel went to Buffalo for the annual Prospects Challenge. I remember standing at the glass with a member of the WBS training staff watching the players take the ice for a practice. As they started skating around, he just said, "Man - you can just tell that Guentzel is just on another level compared to everyone else here." He was right.

Tweet from @penguins: Recchi on #Pens prospect Jake Guentzel: "His hockey IQ is off the charts." Read more: https://t.co/EvWRxMMiHO pic.twitter.com/WFiOY9yod4

With that in mind, it was especially exciting when he first got called up to make his NHL debut on Nov. 21, 2016 against the New York Rangers at PPG Paints Arena. That excitement was intensified with how that debut went - scoring on his first shot of his first shift, one of two goals he would finish with.

Tweet from @penguins: The #Pens have recalled forward Jake Guentzel from the @WBSPenguins. Full details: https://t.co/0CDQnb3VRb pic.twitter.com/nIX4kmfq8H

Tweet from @penguins: Good morning from @PPGPaintsArena, where Jake Guentzel has joined the #Pens for morning skate. All other expected players are present also. pic.twitter.com/fyvOditjo2

Tweet from @penguins: GOAL! GUENTZEL! First shift, first shot, first goal. We know some elite company that Jake Guentzel (@jakenbake20) is joining right now! pic.twitter.com/sx0oFrqQmJ

But with Guentzel going back down to WBS for the next six weeks, he went back to being off the radar a little bit. But man, when he came back up for good at the end of January, all he did was score goals - and that's what he's continued to do ever since.

That run in 2017 was so much fun. I remember the day after Pittsburgh's 3-1 win over Columbus in Game 1 of their First Round series, Crosby had a crowd of reporters around his stall and they spilled over into Guentzel's neighboring stall, so he sat down nearby and waited.

I told Guentzel that while he did that, he could do a 1-on-1 interview with me for PensTV. Since I knew Guentzel wasn't entirely comfortable talking to the media, and because hockey players are a superstitious group, I let him know that the last player I did a 1-on-1 with - Bryan Rust - scored a big goal in Game 1.

"I'm good luck," I told Guentzel, who laughed and said, "Perfect."

We did the interview, and the next day, Guentzel scored his first career NHL playoff goal in the Pens' 4-1 win in Game 2. When he walked into the locker room following the game, he and I looked at each other and both just started laughing. "I told you!" I said. "I know, I know," he responded. "You were right!"

Before tonight's Game 3 in Columbus, Guentzel was preparing his stick in the hallway outside the Pens locker room when I was walking through.

"Hey Jake," I said. "Consider this our conversation."

"Perfect," he said again. "I like it."

After we chatted, he scored a hat trick, including the overtime game-winner, in Pittsburgh's 5-4 victory to give them a 3-0 series lead. And again, we both just started cracking up in the locker room afterward.

Tweet from @penguins: GuentzGOAL x 3 = 👍 pic.twitter.com/MSwfRHjZ5k

It was interactions like that which made it even more enjoyable to watch what he went on to do. Guentzel ended up scoring an NHL-leading 13 goals in 25 games, the second-most ever by a rookie in a single playoffs in league history. Never in his wildest dreams did Guentzel - or any of us, really - envision that he would perform like he did en route to winning a Stanley Cup.

But the craziest part is that he hasn't stopped since. Guentzel truly has become one of the NHL's elite players and goal scorers. He has 98 goals in 243 regular-season games and an absolutely incredible 24 goals in 43 postseason games.  

Reflecting back on it, it has been so cool to be there from Day 1 - I remember taking Guentzel's headshot on my Blackberry right after that interview - and watching him become the player and person he is today. He's such a great player and such a great kid.

It was so tough to see him suffer an injury while scoring his 20th goal and 200th point that will sideline him for 4-6 months after undergoing shoulder surgery, but Guentzel is such a tough kid. He'll come back stronger than ever, and I can't wait to see what's next for him. It's been a blast so far.

The Penguins were arguably the most successful NHL franchise over the last decade (2010-19). They made the playoffs every season while becoming the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in nearly 20 years. The team provided many memorable moments over that 10-year span. In this Decade Review series website writers Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo, who have been with the team the entire time, highlight the 10 storylines and moments that stand out to them from the past 10 years.

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