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Jake Guentzel’s Evolution Into An Elite Scoring Winger

Jake Guentzel has had an impressive start to his career. In a mere 171 games, he’s scored a total of 128 points, with 62 goals contributing to that. Over his career, he’s spent an average of 17:02 on ice per game. Compare this to studs from his draft class, like Max Domi (16:49) and Jonathan Drouin (16:22), and we can see that Guentzel has been playing at an elite ice-time level. His production may not be as consistent compared to players from his draft class, but he still does produce when needed. Let’s begin by looking at his shot heatmaps.

First, let’s look at his rookie season: 2016-2017. During the 2016-2017 regular season, Guentzel played 40 games, scoring 16 goals and assisting on 17 goals. With a +7 plus-minus, Guentzel was on the ice 52% of the time when the Penguins had the puck, and had an exceptional shooting percentage of 19.8%. Let’s look at his shot breakdown from that season (click to enlarge).

With 136 total shot attempts during the 2016-2017 season, Guentzel did most of his handiwork near the front of the net. Using the logarithm of his shot count, we are able to establish a likelihood of him scoring a goal. With this fact, we can see that Guentzel most likely scored his goals near the front of the net. Interestingly enough, Guentzel also showed prowess not only in the front of the net, but also on the left side of the net.

Being strong at scoring from the left side of the net is a sure sign of him learning from captain Sidney Crosby, who has a knack of scoring from extreme angles from the net. Though Guentzel’s shot chart shows he shoots close to the net, we see two points on the ice that demonstrate some goal scoring likelihood: low left slot and between the circles. For any established sniper, like Alexander Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, those two spots are prime scoring areas. In both spots, the goaltender is forced back into his net and is obliged to give up the corners of the net. Jake Guentzel’s success in those two areas show his ability to shoot accurately in high danger areas. His debut season with the Penguins was an exceptional one. Let’s move to his next season: 2017-2018.

After helping the Penguins repeat as Stanley Cup champions in 2016-2017, Guentzel played all 82 games in the 2017-2018 season. At the end of the regular season, he scored 22 goals and assisted on 26 others, giving him a modest 48 points. This season seemed like a disappointment to Guentzel as he struggled to be consistent in his goal scoring. With a shooting percentage of 12.9%, Guentzel started regressing to the mean after an explosive first season. However, his shot location chart shows that Guentzel diversified his scoring.

In addition to his prowess in front of the net, Guentzel continued to shoot the puck from further away from the net. Guentzel performed well from the right goal line all the way up to the right circle. As a left-handed shooter, the angles he is shooting from are extremely difficult. His ability to score from areas like that is promising in his development as an elite NHL forward. Furthermore, playing with Sidney Crosby has given Guentzel more opportunities to both play around net and establish himself as a premier scorer from the low slot. Let’s now see how he has continued this growth to his current season: 2018-2019.

Unlike his previous two seasons, Guentzel has not been a prominent net front presence. Instead, Guentzel has established himself as a multi-tool elite forward. In 49 games this season, Guentzel has scored 47 points (24 goals, 23 assists). With a +9 plus-minus, Guentzel has begun playing extremely important minutes for the Penguins. Playing an average of 18:54 per game, Guentzel is responsible for 5.7 of the Penguins’ 58 points. The Penguins’ leader in point shares, for comparison, is Sidney Crosby with 6.7 and Kris Letang next with 6.1. Guentzel, third in point shares for the Penguins, is also first in the team’s goal scoring and fourth on the team’s point list.

His contribution to the Penguins this season has been enormous. His shot locations show that he is evolving his shooting ability to make him an elite sniper from the right side. Furthermore, he’s still maintained his ability to play in the front of the net. His ability to excel at both net front play and accurately picking shots speaks to his high hockey IQ. Guentzel’s ability to “sniff out” scoring chances as well as start scoring chances complements his ability to force favorable scoring scrums in front of the net. This season, we can look at how he’s evolved his play by using machine learning.

Machine learning can be used to create a goal scoring model to help analyze Guentzel’s scoring touch. The model created is based on all shooting data (from MoneyPuck) from the 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-19 regular seasons. This model is a neural network that uses the shot location as well as the shot angle to create a probability of the shot becoming a goal. Here is how Guentzel fared:

Similar to most NHL forwards, Guentzel took predominantly low goal scoring chance shots. However, this histogram shows that Guentzel’s expectation is not a simple normal curve, but actually a bimodal distribution. Though a high frequency of shots were deemed to have around a 2.5% chance of scoring, Guentzel also seems to have a high frequency of shots that were deemed to have 13% of scoring a goal. This secondary spike is a promising sign that Guentzel is beginning to take higher probability shots.

A histogram is one method of viewing Guentzel’s growth. Let’s look at the machine learning model’s output per shot attempt.

Unlike the histogram, this scatterplot shows that there is no linear trend for Guentzel’s scoring probability. However, this plot does show his his mean scoring probability: 7.5%. During the season, the average scoring probability has changed slightly. Dipping as low as 6% and as high as 9%, he has maintained a somewhat steady average. This consistency is something that he has improved on from last season.

All the data on Jake Guentzel has been pointing him upward in growth and potential. With increasing production, the Penguins have invested in Guentzel, signing him to a 5 year, $30 million contract extension. With more room to grow and an already natural skill for scoring, Jake Guentzel has begun his evolution into an elite scoring wing.

Sasank is a student at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in computer science and minoring in business. He is a huge hockey and baseball fan, but also enjoys following the Steelers and Spurs on the side. His passion lies in applying machine learning to sports analytics. As a mentor in the Carnegie Mellon Tartan Sports Analytics Club, Sasank does sports analytics research on hockey in order to bring more clarity to skater and goaltender performance. He can be reached on Twitter at @_svish.