Penguins turn to Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist in power play
Phil Kessel wasn’t at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ morning skate on Thursday.
That’s nothing out of the ordinary. After all, coach Mike Sullivan usually makes the morning skates optional, and Kessel vigorously took the option over the past four years.
Also, there is the matter of Kessel having been traded to the Arizona Coyotes in June.
That leaves a considerable void on the Penguins’ potent but volatile power play as Kessel led the Penguins with 36 power-play points (12 goals, 24 assists) in 2018-19.
Thankfully, they have a spare 40-goal scorer to throw into the mix.
Jake Guentzel, who led the team with exactly 40 goals last season, isn’t a stranger to the top power-play squad. The team inserted him onto that group late last season and during the 2019 postseason. And while he’s not expected to man the left-wall area Kessel inhabited so deftly the past four seasons, he will have a prominent role as a presence in front of the net, either above the crease or the slot.
“I joke with Jake a lot sometimes,” Sullivan said during the postseason. “I always say to him, ‘Do you ever go home and say, “This coach is crazy. I’m the leading goal scorer on the team, and I’m on the second power play?” ’ There’s some validity to that.”
During Thursday’s morning skate, Guentzel manned the slot while sturdy net-front stalwart Patric Hornqvist pestered Matt Murray during drills. But throughout the bulk of training camp, Guentzel was the only net-front presence on the top group.
While their styles contrast greatly, it appears management sees Guentzel and Hornqvist as interchangeable above the crease.
“They’re both very good. They’re just different in how they go about it,” Sullivan said. “Jake has a unique ability to play in that traffic area. For a guy that’s not overly big or strong, he just finds the quiet ice in the traffic and he has that sixth sense that allows him to be effective in that area. And he plays with a lot of courage. Both of those guys do. (Hornqvist) is more like a bull in a china closet. He’s just going to make a mess of it in front of the net, and he’s going to make the goalie’s life miserable. So they’re a little bit different in how they go about it, but they’re both very effective.
While Guentzel (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) is only slightly smaller than Hornqvist (5-11, 189 pounds), his methods aren’t nearly as rambunctious as Hornqvist’s.
“(Hornqvist) obviously gets in there a little more,” defenseman Justin Schultz said. “That’s his game.”
Is that to say he’s he’s more violent?
Said Guentzel: “He goes in there with his nose dirty. He’s taking cross checks, he’s giving cross checks. I just try to go there and take the goalie’s eyes away or get a stick on the puck. Definitely different kind of styles, but I feel they both do good.”
Guentzel is far more precise when he ventures towards the cage. A lot of his net-front play involves re-directions or precision passing, whereas Hornqvist’s attack usually involves a lot of hacks and whacks on goaltenders’ leg pads.
“He’s known for his net-front presence,” Guentzel said. “He grinds. Obviously, he creates a lot of traffic in front of the net. I’m just trying to get to loose puck as much as I can and just find that middle pocket.”
Regardless of who mans that role, their teammates profess confidence in either player and their varying styles, particularly those directing traffic from the point.
“They’re both phenomenal at tipping pucks,” Schultz said. “Any guy up there is kind of interchangeable. As long as we’re moving the puck, shooting the puck, we’ll be fine.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .