The roots of the Jake Guentzel story can be traced to Colby Lake in Woodbury and heated one-on-one-on-one games of shinny he played against his big brothers.
Jake was merely a squirt. Older brother Gabe was 16, oldest brother Ryan, 18. But that never mattered to the 10-year-old.
“Even though we were in high school, Jake had to be just as good as us,” said Ryan Guentzel, now 30 and proud as can be of Jake’s impact as Sidney Crosby’s linemate on a Pittsburgh Penguins juggernaut striving to become the first repeat Stanley Cup champions since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
“Whatever we were doing — whether it was shooting or stickhandling on the ice or playing golf, the age difference didn’t matter to Jake. He wanted to beat us.”
Those brotherly battles often didn’t last long because they would become too intense. And Jake, who can pull golf clubs out of his trunk at any time and shoot close to par, never lost that intensity. As a 22-year-old first-year pro, he is leading the NHL with nine playoff goals as the Penguins open the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday against Ottawa.
Eight of Guentzel’s goals came in his first nine career playoff games. The only players since 1943-44 to top that? Hall of Famers Maurice Richard and Mario Lemieux, who now cuts Guentzel’s paychecks as the Penguins’ owner.
Guentzel’s 14th point — which is tied for fourth in the NHL and came on Bryan Rust’s Game 7- winning goal against Washington — broke Jaromir Jagr’s 26-year-old record for most points by a Penguins rookie in a single postseason. Guentzel’s three game-winning goals are tied for first in the NHL.
Simply, he hasn’t slowed an iota since scoring his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot on his first NHL shift while on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. A gifted playmaker, Guentzel scored 21 goals and had 21 assists in 33 games for AHL Wilkes-Barre this season and another 16 goals and 17 assists in 40 regular-season games for Pittsburgh.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Jake said from the Pittsburgh hotel he has lived in for most the year.
Crazy for his family, too. Gabe, who skated for Colorado College, now plays pro hockey in Germany and is Jake’s training mentor, headed for Pittsburgh on Friday with mom, Sally, and father, Mike, the Gophers associate men’s hockey coach.
“I think my dad’s most fired up. He’s so into it,” Jake said.
Seeing Jake’s name atop the NHL charts has been “numbing” for the entire clan, Ryan Guentzel says.
“Remarkable,” said Ryan, who played for Notre Dame and is a real estate adviser. “Jake keeps doing things that you keep wondering if it’s going to tail off. I mean, the playoffs are more physical, yet he’s still coming out and producing. It’s been a blast for us to watch.”
Jake Guentzel was a huge Penguins fan growing up. He posted a picture on his Twitter account taken with his brothers just before Ryan took off for Denmark to play pro hockey. Jake is wearing a Penguins’ T-shirt. That pic was snapped in 2012 — a summer before the Penguins selected him 77th overall with a well-traveled draft pick that originally belonged to the Wild before acquiring Darroll Powe from Philadelphia.
“I was a huge Crosby and Malkin fan,” Guentzel said. “Those two players have been so dynamic their whole careers, so I always wanted to watch them because of how talented they are.
“It’s amazing. You wake up and it’s still a dream you get to play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.”
Guentzel was born in Omaha when his dad was coaching the Lancers of the USHL. He moved to Minnesota at less than a year old after his dad, a former Gophers defenseman, joined Doug Woog’s staff.
Jake fell in love with hockey. He was on the ice after the Gophers won back-to-back national championships, got to be a stickboy when his now teammate, Kessel, played at the U.
His game developed playing several years for the 94-born Minnesota Icemen, a Marty Nanne-, Bob Kelly-coached team filled with future college and pro players such as Brady Skjei and Hudson Fasching.
“Everyone knew his hockey brain was beyond everyone else — but his size, he was so tiny,” said Andrew Commers, a former St. John’s University forward who grew up playing with Guentzel on the Icemen. “He had the hands, had the vision, had the smarts. I still remember, my best friend played with Jake at Hill-Murray, and he used to say, if Jake gets to 5-11, he’s going to the NHL. That’s how good he was.”
Mind for the game
Before Commers’ senior year at St. Thomas Academy, he played on a line with Guentzel and future Gophers captain Justin Kloos in the Elite League.
“I was just the grinder mucking it up trying to get those two the puck, and Kloos and Guentzel were doing some magical things and led the league in scoring,” Commers, now 22 and a commercial real estate broker, said. “Somehow Jake always found his way to the net in the right spots at the right time, and you can see, that hasn’t changed. Every shift, he’s dangerous and doing something right.”
Penguins teammate Matt Cullen, at 40 Jake’s elder by 18 years, says Guentzel’s hockey IQ is elite. It’s why Penguins coach Mike Sullivan plays Guentzel 18 minutes a game — third most among forwards behind Malkin and Crosby — and uses Guentzel in 4-on-4, power play, penalty-kill situations and the last minutes of games when chasing or protecting.
“He’s earned everything,” Cullen said. “He’s not coming in as a top-five pick that’s going to be guaranteed a spot. It’s a cool story because he came in, got his opportunity early in the year and took advantage of it. He went back down to the minors, really went to school on that first opportunity and came back even better.
“We’re reaping the rewards.”
Making the leap
In the spring of 2016, Guentzel and his dad sat with agent Ben Hankinson in a hotel room at the downtown Minneapolis Marriott. Penguins assistant GM Jason Botterill (who became Buffalo’s GM on Thursday) sold Guentzel on why he should forgo his senior year at Nebraska Omaha, where he was captain.
Guentzel’s head was spinning because many folks, including then-Mavericks coach Dean Blais, tried to convince him he wasn’t physically ready at 5-11 and 180 pounds for pro hockey. But Botterill explained the Penguins’ development vision, who Jake would end up playing with, how he would gain perspective from former pros Bill Guerin and Mark Recchi, when he’d debut, and that he’d play both center and wing.
“I said to my wife the other day, ‘It was right on,’ ” Mike Guentzel said. “Everything happened that way.”
Guentzel is the latest Penguins’ youngster to step in and succeed.
“We don’t win a Stanley Cup last year if not for guys like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Matt Murray playing as well as they did,” Cullen said.
Cullen, who as a 20-year-old centered Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne in Anaheim, has been impressed at Guentzel’s confidence next to Crosby. Most players would be intimidated, Cullen said.
Guentzel demonstrated his confidence in Game 7. Laboring through a hip issue, he was clobbered by Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. But moments later, he popped up and had the patience to look off Crosby and wait for Rust cutting to the net. Ryan Guentzel’s former Notre Dame teammate took the perfect pass for the game’s first goal.
It’s not easy for a rookie to pass over Crosby in a scoreless Game 7.
“He’s got an edge to go with his skills and hockey sense. A little attitude,” Cullen said.
“That’s the way he was back in the day,” Commers said. “He can yap and never backed down from anyone despite his size.”
Cullen bets Guentzel gets that side from growing up competing with two older brothers.
“Honestly, Jake reminds me of my third son [7-year-old Joey],” Cullen said. “Jake’s the third boy in his family, and I can see that he got that fire and had to stick up to his older brothers his whole life.”
It has been quite the ride since Sally and Mike Guentzel dropped Jake off at the airport after signing his first contract almost 14 months ago.
“You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a different world, a different life,” Mike Guentzel said.
The Guentzels couldn’t have imagined this in their wildest dreams. Eight more wins, and a Stanley Cup will be celebrated with this summer in a city where a teenager once dreamed about what it would be like to play alongside two superstars he idolized.
Five years later, that teenager is Crosby’s linemate, Malkin’s teammate and having the time of his life playing for the team he once cheered for.
“It’s been really special and you just try to take it in as much as you can,” Jake Guentzel said. “It’s crazy how it’s worked out, but we’re only halfway there now. It’s been a long, fun ride, and I’m just trying to make the most of it and really want to win that last game of the year.”