Strong and confident.
That's how Jake Guentzel both looks and feels at Penguins training camp, just over a year after undergoing major shoulder surgery.
"I think Jake has really maximized the opportunity with some of this downtime to try to get himself as ready as can be," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We all know what he's capable of as a player. He's just a terrific player that has got such a high hockey IQ. But for me, my observations to this point are that he looks really strong."
It's a credit to Guentzel that he rallied so remarkably from such a challenging setback. Especially considering that it was the first time in his career that he'd dealt with an injury of that significance, quietly displaying an impressive durability his first few years in the NHL.
Despite being a fierce competitor - to the point where Sullivan called him "tough as nails" and raved about his courage and bravery - Guentzel was able to play in 219 straight contests (regular and postseason combined) before that streak literally came crashing to a halt on Dec. 31, 2019.
Guentzel went flying into the boards while scoring his 20th goal of the season, hurting his right shoulder and getting a recovery timeline of four to six months. And while Guentzel was able to return for the Qualifying Round against Montreal in August, the delayed start to the 2020-21 season means that those four games are the only ones he has played in the past calendar year.
It's been hard for Guentzel to be away from the arena for such an extended period of time, which is also something he had never dealt with before growing up as a rink rat. But he tried to make the most of the situation, with the silver lining being that he was able to put the injury completely behind him, and made strength and muscle gains that he wouldn't normally have the opportunity to make over that period.
"I feel a lot more confident with the extra recovery time over this time," Guentzel said. "I think for me, I feel stronger, I feel more confident and don't really think about anymore. What happened to me is under my belt. So just a confidence thing with it and how long it's been since it, so I'm ready to go."
Video: Guentzel speaks to media after practice
Guentzel said he returned to Pittsburgh a while back because he has missed so much time in the past year, and is trying to make up for that lost time as much as he can. He said participating in small group skates heading into training camp was hugely beneficial for him.
"I've just been trying to do as much as I can on the ice, and see the guys as much as I can because I missed a lot of last year," Guentzel said. "I think it helped out a lot just being around different guys. I think that was a big thing."
Now, Guentzel is trying to make the most out of the intra-squad scrimmages that the Penguins will be prioritizing in their condensed training camp ahead of the shortened 56-game season.
"It's going to be different for all of us, but just for me, I just got to get back to playing hockey and get into that routine again because it's been a while," Guentzel said. "It's nice to get the whole team back together, and hopefully we'll click right away because it's a short camp and we've got to start off hot."
Guentzel is entering his third full NHL season (fourth total) with the confidence that comes from knowing he not only does he belong in this league - he's become one of its elite goal scorers. When it comes to what he wants to accomplish moving forward, consistency is it.
"Just to do it year in and year out is a big thing," he said. "It's tough to do in this league. And I think that's what you want to do to be a really good player, is to have that consistency for all 56 games this year and do it year in and out. So, I think that's the biggest thing for me."
As Sullivan said, "the sky is the limit" for Guentzel, and they think so highly of him in so many aspects. But one of the things they love the most about him is his hunger and determination to keep getting better.
"I know he's not satisfied with where he's at," Sullivan said. "He wants to improve in every aspect of his game, and he's willing to put the work in to do it. And I think that's one of the things that separates Jake from others as far as the character of his makeup. And that excites us, because we think his game will continue to improve."