Pens prospect Jake Guentzel joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for their Calder Cup playoff run after a few years of college hockey at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and immediately tore it up, finishing with a team-leading 14 points (5G-9A) in their 10 games.
It’s a story that may sound familiar, as fellow forward Conor Sheary did something similar after he first joined WBS following his college career.
“It’s eye-opening,” Guentzel said of what players like Sheary and Bryan Rust were able to do this season for the Stanley Cup-winning Pens. “They’ve been at summer camps all the time, I’ve seen them here. Just what they’ve done in the AHL and now the NHL, it’s pretty special to see.”
Not that Guentzel is getting ahead of himself. The 21-year-old said despite his terrific postseason performance, his expectations haven’t necessarily changed.
“Obviously you use this summer as a big summer, you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Just got to take it day by day.”
Pens player development coach Mark Recchi said while Guentzel’s numbers may have been higher than they anticipated, they knew the 2013 third-round draft pick was talented and that putting him alongside two veterans – Carter Rowney and Tom Kostopoulos – helped bring the best out of him.
“I’d seen him enough to know how good a player he was going to be coming out of university and he had a great impact,” Recchi said. “We put him with a couple veterans a couple games in and I think he fed off that. They were great in helping that and that’s the culture we have down there with our young guys. Bring them in and put them with some good veterans and help their growth.”
Guentzel said he had a blast playing alongside those two, crediting them for the success he had down there.
“I had a lot of fun. The guys around me were awesome,” he said. “We scored a couple goals our first game. So the instant chemistry came and I was pretty fortunate.”
Guentzel’s skillset fits tremendously with how the Pens want to play, his speed in particular.
“Obviously you have to play with pace every shift and I’ve got to make hard plays,” Guentzel said. “I think that’s a big key I took from (my experience). Playing with pace, it took me a while to figure that out but once I did, I think it’s when I skyrocketed. So it was a lot of fun and it suits my game well.”
Recchi also lauded how smart of a player Guentzel is.
“His hockey IQ is off the charts,” Recchi said. “He competes like crazy and he plays center, he plays wing, very versatile. I think on the safe side you project him as a top-nine. On the high side you project him as a top-six for sure just because of his hockey IQ.”
In order to someday fulfill that projection, the 5-foot-10, 167-pound forward said he knows he needs to continue working on his strength.
“That’s a big part of it,” he said. “You can never be too strong, so that’s a big part of where I’ve got to go. Going into college I was a little small; now I feel a little stronger but still some room to grow. Everyone’s bigger now, so you have to be quicker everywhere. Obviously it’s going to take some adjusting, but this summer’s big for me.”