Though he was only coming off of his first season with Pittsburgh, there was a player Bell had been watching for years in his native Minnesota who was on the Penguins’ draft board. That was Jake Guentzel, who had first gotten on Bell’s radar during tryouts for USA Hockey’s Select 15 Camp despite his lack of size.
“He weighed 105 pounds and he was like 5-1,” Bell said with a laugh. “But he was this magic little player that everybody said, ‘he’s too small, he’s too small.’ Then he just kept scoring points and making plays.”
Bell used Guentzel’s performance there as the baseline for when he watched him play in the state championship game with Hill-Murray School following a season where the forward posted 74 points (24G-50A) as a senior.
And with the USHL being Bell’s assigned area to cover as a Penguins scout, he saw a lot of Guentzel after he joined the Sioux City Musketeers for his draft year in 2012-13. Bell watched as Guentzel finished with 73 points (29G-44A) in 60 games, tying a Tier-1 USHL record with a 21-game scoring streak (16G-27A-43PTS).
“At every level, he has always overcome his size,” Bell said. “When he got to the USHL, he was doing the same thing. And I was like well, there’s a pattern here of 6-7 years.”
That prompted Randy Sexton, then the Penguins’ director of amateur scouting and current assistant GM with the Buffalo Sabres, to come out and take a look at Guentzel – where he said something that hit home for Bell, who grew up in Inver Grove Heights and played at the University of Minnesota.
“He made the comment, ‘oh, he reminds me of a young Neal Broten,’” Bell said. “And for us, Neal Broten – he won the Hobey Baker, he played for the North Stars, he played for New Jersey and won a Stanley Cup and a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. And it was like well, if he’s comparing him to Neal Broten, I’m onto something here. So that gave me some confidence with him.”
After that, the Penguins put Guentzel on the draft board that they took with them to the Prudential Center in New Jersey, where all seven rounds of the draft took place in one day because of the previous season’s work stoppage.
With their first pick, Pittsburgh traded up to draft goaltender Tristan Jarry in the second round (44th overall). And with their second pick, which was 77th overall – received as part of the trade that sent Joe Morrow and a fifth-round pick to Dallas in exchange for Brenden Morrow – Bell was praying that the Penguins would take Guentzel.
As the third round progressed, everything was going well until it was time for the 76th selection, which was held by the New York Islanders. Bell knew that Trent Klatt, an Islanders amateur scout from Minnesota, knew Guentzel and Bell was worried that the Islanders might take him.
Bell waited with bated breath as the Islanders were on the clock. From their draft table, they took the microphone and began to announce their pick.
“From the USHL…”
Bell’s heart dropped.
“I assumed ‘oh, they’re taking Jake Guentzel,’” Bell said. “I felt like I was going to throw up because we lost him. I really did. I felt sick to my stomach.”
The anticipation built as the Islanders named their selection.
“From Waterloo, Taylor Cammarata.”
And with that, the anxiety Bell was feeling transformed into pure joy.
“I jumped up, like ‘oh my god, we’re going to get (Guentzel)! This is so wonderful,’” Bell laughed. “It was a feeling of sickness to ecstasy in about a two-minute span.”
After Guentzel went through everything a draft pick does, like stopping at Pittsburgh’s draft table, doing media and taking his draft portraits, he went to the Penguins’ suite to meet the rest of the scouts.
“All of the other scouts hadn’t seen Jake,” Bell recalled. “They’re like, ‘that’s your guy?’ I’m like, ‘that’s him.’ They’re like, ‘the kid that looks like a fourth-grader? We took him?’ I’m like yeah, ‘that’s him. He’s awesome.’”
Now, four years later, Guentzel is a Stanley Cup champion who led the NHL in postseason goals (13) and game-winning goals (5) playing alongside Sidney Crosby in the 2017 playoffs.
His 21 playoff points tied the league record for a rookie, while the five game-winners were a new NHL rookie mark. So what was it that Bell saw in Guentzel, despite the lack of size, that made him think he would be able to have such success at this level?
“Honestly, I always thought he was the smartest player on the ice,” Bell said. “Aside from anything else – skill level, skating – he has always been the smartest. I went back and looked at my reports on him, and most of my reports were, ‘He was the smartest guy on the ice.’ Every time. When you’re revisiting things, that was the one consistent thing with Jake Guentzel, his hockey IQ. It’s off the charts.”
Bell pointed out the goal Guentzel scored off a setup from Crosby in Pittsburgh’s preseason game against Buffalo on Sept. 27 as a perfect example of that (watch it here).
“He saw that coming and so did ‘Sid,’” Bell said. “No one else. He was moving to that spot before the puck even got to Sid. He did stuff like that all the time, even when he was younger. He was always moving ahead of people, or even when he played with not as high-level players as Crosby, he still was a step ahead of everybody.”
Bell pointed out that while Crosby and Guentzel made that play look easy, it’s actually a complicated one. It began with Conor Sheary digging the puck out from along the boards and sending a short, crisp pass to Crosby, who moved into the slot. Guentzel, who had drifted behind the net, recognized the play unfolding and jumped out to the side of the net. Crosby put it right on his stick, and Guentzel one-timed it into the yawning cage.
“It’s a perfect example of how they work,” Bell said. “Because Sid was passing there before he even got the puck and Jake was moving there. Their minds were two steps ahead of everybody else on the ice, and they were both on the same page. Jake saw the puck going in that direction, he knew Sid was going to get to it first, and Sid knew Jake was going to go over there because that’s the open ice. And then he taps it in.”
That’s why Guentzel is such a good fit on Crosby’s wing. He actually played center for the majority of his career until he turned pro, and was viewed as more of a playmaker than a scorer. Especially coming out the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where Guentzel finished with 30 goals in 108 career games played with the Mavericks.
“He just didn’t get the production because he had a hard time playing with people,” Bell said. “I think that’s why he was more of a passer, because he always had to make the plays because he was two steps ahead, and no one else was two steps ahead to give him the puck. Now he’s with somebody who’s on the same level.”
And with that, it’s no surprise that Guentzel and Crosby have picked up right where they left off. They played together all of training camp, where Guentzel finished second in the NHL with nine preseason points. That chemistry continued into the season opener on Wednesday, where they combined for four points.
With younger players, sometimes management feels like it’s important to manage expectations. And that could have been the case for Guentzel, especially considering he spent the first half of his rookie season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and has yet to play a full NHL season. But as Mike Sullivan said, expectations for Guentzel – who scored 16 goals in 40 regular-season games with the Pens last year – are high.
“I think Jake has built a body of work where it’s hard not to have high expectations,” Sullivan said with a smile. “He’s a really good hockey player and shows no signs of slowing down. He has great hockey sense, he’s a competitive kid, he thinks the game on a high level, and he has a quiet confidence about him that I think really helps him as a young pro. So internally, we have high expectations of him because we think he’s a really good player.”
And Guentzel’s expectations for himself are high as well.
After he joined WBS for their 2016 Calder Cup run following his junior year in Omaha, he scored five goals and 14 points in just 10 games. And that summer, assistant general manager Bill Guerin said that because Guentzel came in and played so well, he wouldn’t be a secret in that league anymore. He’d have to come in and earn it all over again.
That’s the same mindset Guentzel has had coming into this year despite his success. As Sullivan has said, it’s not in his nature to get complacent, and Guentzel is aware that he’s certainly not a secret in this league anymore.
Following the first period of Pittsburgh’s eventual 4-2 win over Philadelphia in the Stadium Series, as the Flyers headed to the locker room, one of them said, “Who is this 59 kid?” They didn’t know Guentzel then, but now the entire league knows his number and his name.
Simply playing on a line with Crosby attracts plenty of attention from opposing teams, but with what Guentzel accomplished last year, he’d attract attention regardless of what line he was on. And he said he’s looking forward to the challenge of that.
“Obviously, other teams might know about you a little bit, but you’ve got to come back in and do the little things that worked last year,” Guentzel said. “You’ve got to be on top of your game every night and do the little things to keep your game going well. Obviously it’s going to be a little tougher this year, but that makes it more fun.”
His biggest goal, Guentzel said, is to avoid any slumps and try to be as consistent as possible for a full season. To help prepare for that, he spent the summer training with his brother Gabe, who plays in Europe, at the University of Minnesota, where his dad Mike is associate head coach for the Gophers men’s hockey team (Bell just joined the staff as an assistant coach). When Jake wasn’t working out with strength coach Cal Dietz, he was playing alongside other NHL players in Da Beauty League in Edina, which formed last summer.
“You kind of do what you’ve been doing for the last couple years and just try to be ready for a longer season, get that conditioning,” Guentzel said. “You’ve just got to try and adjust to an 82-game schedule and be ready for that.”
It helps that he feels confident and comfortable, both playing with Crosby and as a pro in general. During one preseason game, the 22-year-old Guentzel even remarked about how he was looking forward to playing with “the young guys” and seeing what they could bring. What a difference a year makes.
“You kind of know what to expect coming in,” he said. “You’re a little bit more comfortable. Just the guys and being around them, it gives you a little more confidence on the ice. Definitely feel better coming into this year.”
It also helps that he’s been able to get a more permanent living situation after being stuck in a hotel last season. Guentzel has an apartment in downtown Pittsburgh close to teammate Olli Maatta and is living on his own, without a roommate, for the first time in his life.
“It’s good. It’s different,” Guentzel said. “A lot of alone time. Try to keep yourself busy sometimes. But it gets a little lonely. But I’ll take it.”
Despite having a lot of free time, Guentzel has yet to decorate his new place – “I’m just waiting for my parents to come,” he joked. On practice days, Guentzel said he hangs out at the rink for as long as he can before going home, taking a nap and then usually plays video games before getting dinner somewhere in Market Square or the South Side.
Honestly, the biggest adjustment for Guentzel are the off-ice obligations that come with being an NHL player – mainly interviews. Talking with reporters isn’t something he’s too comfortable with or really had to do in college or the AHL. But as he said, “You come here and it’s a big thing, so you’ve kind of got to adjust to that. It’s different, but I guess it’s a good thing. And I’ll deal with it.”
He may come off as a quiet kid, but he has that quiet confidence Sullivan mentioned. And with it, he’s ready to get started and build off what he did last year and over the offseason.
“I feel confident,” he said. “I feel comfortable out there. You’re just trying to do the things you worked on in the summer and try to bring it for another year and do your thing.”