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WBS Feature: Top Prospects in the Fold

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Hearing your name called at the NHL draft is a surreal experience. It serves as confirmation that all the hard work you put into shooting pucks in the garage, all the alarms set for early morning practices, and all the support from your parents and others who helped with the long car pools to road games were all worth it.

With all of those memories rushing back and emotions reaching unthought-of highs, being drafted might feel like the fitting end to a long journey. Instead, it serves as the beginning of a real trip towards achieving your dreams.

“Getting drafted is a special experience,” said new Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin Jake Guentzel. “But it’s just the start of the work you have to do in your career.”

Both Guentzel and Teddy Blueger were Pittsburgh draft picks and highly touted prospects by the Penguins organization as they played their way through the college ranks. Now, they’re taking another step in their quest to reach the NHL by joining Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for their first tastes of pro hockey.

The learning curve for players coming from the collegiate or junior ranks to pro hockey is often a steep one, but it’s a process both players have prepared themselves for as they take the trials and tribulations of their new experience in stride.

“Everyone’s so good here (in the AHL), you always have to be aware of where everyone’s at,” said Blueger. “As far as defending, you’ve got to do a good job waving your stick, not letting anyone get behind you. Offensively, the biggest thing is to play with pace, you know? Move your feet all the time. Those are the things you have to focus on.”

Blueger, a product of prestigious prep program Shattuck-St. Mary’s, which gave the hockey world the likes of Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, and Sidney Crosby, prides himself on playing an effective two-way game. It’s been his calling card well before he was Minnesota State University’s leading scorer, something he refined under the tutelage of coach Tom Ward at Shattuck’s after he moved to the Unites States from Latvia at age 14.

Now he has to learn how to play that two-way game all over again.

“Guys are so much better at making passes through legs, through some sticks, that kind of thing,” Blueger said. “So you have to make sure that you have your stick in good position and making those subtle plays to have that deception to look guys off and make tougher plays.”

Blueger’s high-scoring and defensively stout style at Shattuck’s made him a hot commodity by the time he was taken in the second round by Pittsburgh in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. People kept their eyes glued to Blueger’s draft stock around the same time they were writing off Jake Guentzel.

Guentzel, a year younger than Blueger, came out of a high school hockey hotbed in Minnesota with eye-popping numbers, but the scouting report was one that’s been read too many times: Too small, not strong. Despite having a scholarship to the University of Nebraska-Omaha in tow, he was only taken in the fourth round of the USHL draft.

That too-small, too-weak teenager turned out to be the Sioux City Musketeers’ leading scorer with 73 points (32 points more than the team’s runner-up), and was rewarded with USHL Rookie of the Year. All of those achievements were capped off by becoming the 77th overall selection by the Penguins in 2013. It was more than a fine reward for Guentzel who relished in the doubts when he heard the criticisms of his size coming out of high school.

“Obviously, when you’re a smaller guy, you like that challenge,” Guentzel said. “You want to show people what you have.”

After taking the Pittsburgh brass’ advice to fill out his frame and work towards becoming a well-rounded player, he went on light up the NCAA in his three seasons with the Mavericks. He finished his collegiate career fifth all-time in program scoring and led Nebraska-Omaha to its first ever Frozen Four bid in 2015.

Just as he enjoyed proving people wrong during his junior and collegiate careers, Guentzel – or “Jake From State Farm”, as he’s known in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton locker room – is thrilled with his opportunity to learn in the AHL.

“I can just get my feet wet and soak it all in,” Guentzel said. “I get to see how guys prepare, what they say, how they work, just realizing everything that it takes.”

The learning experience is a valuable one, but both Guentzel and Blueger have already proven they’re not just here to be tutored. They’ve made their impacts felt on the ice, as well.

Guentzel recorded his first pro point with an assist in his second game with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and Blueger has shown off his two-way prowess and solid defensive positioning in the contests in which he’s put on the black and gold sweater.

If they continue to calibrate their games to pace of the AHL at half the rate that they’ve demonstrated so far, Blueger and Guentzel could be key cogs for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton down the stretch this season as well as the NHL contributors for years to come that Pittsburgh hoped they’d be when they called their names at the draft.

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