June 19, 2024

Carolina Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal could empathize with his new teammate’s experience on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena, having been in Jake Guentzel’s shoes before.

Returning to Pittsburgh to play against his former team while wearing a Hurricanes jersey, after winning a Stanley Cup with the Penguins.

The video tribute. The standing ovation. The internal conflict of wondering if this was meant to be your lifelong team, juxtaposed with the reality that salary-cap constraints led to others receiving contracts before you.

That’s the scenario that led Staal to Carolina in a trade during the offseason in June 2012.

And it’s a situation Guentzel found himself in when he was traded to Carolina earlier this month.

“He was a phenomenal player for this team for a long time. He had some pivotal moments for this organization,” Staal said of watching Guentzel’s video tribute. “Yeah, I can relate to those emotions. It’s a great organization with good memories, and they treated (Guentzel) with the same respect.”

Guentzel received the customary tribute reserved for former Penguins Cup winners, complete with a highlight reel and enthusiastic cheers from the crowd during the first media timeout of the first period.

After the game, Guentzel expressed his desire to remain in Pittsburgh, hoping for a contract extension before this year’s trade deadline. However, that didn’t materialize, leading Penguins general manager Kyle Dubas to trade Guentzel before he became a free agent in the offseason.

“My intention was to stay, but they felt it was best to go in a different direction. It’s out of my control. It’s not my decision,” Guentzel said after his team’s 4-1 loss in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.

What Guentzel didn’t explicitly state is that, as a pending free agent, his intention was to remain at his desired price and contract length, both of which the Penguins were unwilling to meet. His future destination will be his decision, but based on his response when asked about re-signing in Pittsburgh, it doesn’t seem promising.

“I don’t know. That’s … I don’t know,” Guentzel responded. “We’ll just see how this year goes. And I really like it in Carolina.”

So far, Guentzel has made a significant impact in Carolina, tallying 12 points in nine games since joining the Hurricanes.

“He’s even better than I anticipated,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour remarked before Tuesday’s game. “I knew he was exceptional, but seeing him up close, you notice the subtle nuances that he brings to the game. He’s an incredibly intelligent player.”

In salary-capped sports, sustaining excellence becomes challenging as teams cannot retain every player from a championship roster. When the Penguins traded Staal, they knew they were parting ways with a young, talented player who had contributed to their championship success.

Did they anticipate the level of consistency and leadership that would earn him the captaincy in Carolina and regular consideration for the Selke Trophy over the next 12 years?

Absolutely. They knew precisely what they were giving up.

Likewise, Dubas understood that by trading Guentzel to Carolina, he was providing them with a proven scorer with a playoff track record that could potentially lead them to a Stanley Cup Final. However, he also knew he was relinquishing the best-scoring winger Sidney Crosby had ever played with. And Guentzel knew that if he were to stay in Pittsburgh, it wouldn’t be on his terms.

Hence, he finds himself in Carolina now.

And he’s likely to remain there or move to one of the other 30 NHL cities next season.

It’s unfortunate, but the tribute was still a fitting acknowledgment. Staal’s highlights endure, and I suspect Guentzel’s will too.

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