PITTSBURGH — Jake Guentzel was sitting at his locker Monday at PPG Paints Arena following practice, and he couldn’t stop laughing. Earlier in the day, he had joined the popular morning show with Mikey and Big Bob on 96.1 FM and, before he was asked a question about hockey, the show’s hosts inquired with Guentzel if he thinks embattled Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada should be fired.
A proud Minnesota Vikings fan, Guentzel doesn’t seem to have much opinion on Canada but couldn’t stop laughing about the question being posed.
Guentzel, though, turned pretty serious when considering a different question following practice.
The 29-year-old star is entering the final year of his contract. Next summer, he could be an exceptionally hot commodity on the open market.
So, what about that contract?
Make no mistake. Guentzel wants a new contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I’ve pretty much grown up in Pittsburgh,” Guentzel said. “I love this place so much. I really do. This is a great place, both for me and my family. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Kyle Dubas and Guentzel’s agent, Ben Hankinson, haven’t talked new contract just yet.
“The major priority has been Jake’s health,” Dubas said.
Guentzel had ankle surgery in early August, and the initial fear was that he could miss most of October. However, Guentzel has been practicing daily with the Penguins and, in recent days, has been skating in his customary spot on the power play and alongside Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ No. 1 line.
Mike Sullivan is calling Guentzel “day to day,” and there are strong indications that Guentzel will be in the lineup when the Penguins open the season against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night.
Perhaps the Penguins want to gauge Guentzel’s health before making a sizable offer. Or perhaps Dubas has been so busy reconstructing the Penguins that he simply hasn’t had time to focus on a new deal for the sniper.
Either way, both sides seem confident that it will get done.
Agents and general managers can have contentious dealings with one another. Dubas and Hankinson, however, get along splendidly.
“I’ve got a great relationship with Ben,” Dubas said.
Guentzel’s ankle injury, it seems, has slowed talks. But this sounds temporary.
“We can have discussions about that if he wants,” Dubas said of Hankinson. “But right now, the priority has been on his health and getting him back to 100 percent.”
Guentzel is in the final season of a deal that pays him $6 million annually, which has been a very team-friendly deal, given Guentzel’s consistent production, playoff performance and his chemistry with Crosby.
Given Guentzel’s age, it seems likely that a raise will be required to keep him in Pittsburgh.
One of the Penguins’ longtime stars is all for giving Guentzel a new deal.
“I want us to get him signed,” Kris Letang said.
Letang is under contract for five more years. Crosby (two years), Evgeni Malkin (three years), Rickard Rakell (five years) and Bryan Rust (five years), Tristan Jarry (five years), Erik Karlsson (four years), Ryan Graves (six years) and Marcus Pettersson (two years) are all locked into contracts with the Penguins for multiple years. This represents the Penguins’ core.
But few players are as important to the Penguins’ core as Guentzel. He is three goals away from registering 200 for his career. Guentzel has twice hit the 40-goal plateau.
“He’s a huge, huge part of our team and he has been for a number of years,” Letang said. “Trust me, we want to keep him. He’s a great player. A great teammate. He’s so smart on the ice. We’re always watching him in practice and learning things from him because of how smart he is.”
Guentzel came to the Penguins in the 2013 draft as a skinny kid who didn’t look the part of a big-time prospect.
A decade later, he’s still a skinny guy who doesn’t look the part of an NHL star. But he is.
The Penguins’ stars weren’t shocked that he became an important figure in franchise history.
“When you grow next to these guys, you learn what they’re all about,” Letang said. “What makes them tick. And you could see right away that he was just so smart. He was always skating to areas and the puck would just find him. Every time. We knew then that he was a special player, a smart player.”
And a fast-healing player.
Guentzel wasn’t supposed to be ready to start the season, but he’s looked terrific in recent practices.
“It’s kind of remarkable what each day does for an injury like this,” he said. “I’m feeling really good. We’ll see about tomorrow.”
Guentzel’s teammates are encouraged to see him back. There’s a possibility that Guentzel will take away Letang’s spot on the top power play, but the defenseman isn’t complaining.
He just wants Guentzel back in the lineup.
“It’s so good to see him out there, and he looks good,” Letang said. “He brings some very important elements to our team, especially the way he can play and score around the net. He’s such a great, natural goal scorer. Having him back in the lineup would be huge for us.”
Guentzel said clearing the mental hurdles of returning from a serious injury has been his final test.
“That’s part of any injury you go through,” he said. “You’ll have doubts. That’s the biggest thing. You have to make sure you’re comfortable out there. I’m just trying to work through that. It feels good, though.”
What would feel even better than hitting the ice for opening night would be a new, lucrative contract offer from the Penguins.
Guentzel is a Minnesota kid, but his heart is firmly entrenched in Pittsburgh.
Even if he doesn’t care much about who is calling the Steelers’ plays.
“I can’t even tell you how much I love it here,” he said. “From playing with Sid, to the ownership, the people in this city, the team. Honestly, I love everything about this place. This is where I want to be. For now, I’m just focusing on playing. We’ll see if it happens. I hope it does.”
(Top photo: Jeanine Leech / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)