NHL trade grades: Jake Guentzel deal is a

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By Corey Pronman, Sean Gentille and Eric Duhatschek

Carolina Hurricanes get: Forward Jake Guentzel, defenseman Ty Smith.

Pittsburgh Penguins get: Conditional 2024 first-round draft pick, conditional 2024 fifth-round draft pick, forwards Michael Bunting, Ville Koivunen, Vasily Ponomarev, Cruz Lucius.

Corey Pronman: Jake Guentzel joins a strong Carolina team, and they hope he’s a piece that can put them over the top. He is a player who can make so much happen with the puck due to his high-end hands and hockey sense. He is a strong skater who competes well, and despite not being that big, he competes hard and can create at the net. He fits in well stylistically with how Carolina likes to play. They paid a big price for him even though he isn’t a premium position type, and there will be a question about exactly how productive he will be in a different environment where he is the go-to guy.

Ty Smith is a mobile defenseman who thinks the game at a very high level. He’s shown legit offense at various levels, but he’s a smaller defender who doesn’t defend that well.

Bunting is a player who Penguins GM Kyle Dubas is highly familiar with after drafting him in the OHL as well as signing him in Toronto. He is a highly skilled and intelligent player who can create a lot of offense. He competes hard and creates well around the net. In some ways, he has some stylistic similarities to Guentzel, with the main difference being that Bunting is a so-so skater. He’s a quality player signed to a reasonable contract as well.

The prospects Pittsburgh acquired from Carolina follow a trend: skilled forwards with good hockey sense, but lacking high-end athletic traits. I wouldn’t call any of them true premium pro prospects.

Cruz Lucius is a skilled and creative winger who has been a top forward on a strong University of Wisconsin team this season. He has legit playmaking skills at the college level, but his average size and so-so skating leads to questions about how well he will translate to the pros. He has a chance to play games but he will need to prove his game works against men.

Ville Koivunen also is a winger with a ton of skill and vision who can run a pro power play. He’s been highly productive as a 20-year-old versus men because of his skill, but also because he can create in the interior parts of the offensive zone. Like Lucius, he is also isn’t a great skater and he will need to prove at higher levels that his game will translate.

Vasily Ponomarev has looked good against AHL players and had a decent showing in a brief NHL showing this season. He works hard and has excellent puck skills. But he is a smaller center who skates fine but isn’t a blazer. He has a chance to be a bottom-six forward if he hits.

It’s hard to get a premium piece in a rental deal like this; it typically ends up being a lot of quantity versus quality. It’s interesting how much the player types rhymed in this deal. It was a lot of skilled forwards exchanging hands, albeit of different degrees. Pittsburgh doesn’t leave this deal positioned substantially better for the future, though, unless one of these mid-tier prospects or the second round pick hits in a big way. It’s highly possible that Bunting ends up being the best part of their return.

Hurricanes grade: B+
Penguins grade: B-

Sean Gentille: At some point in my seven years of watching Jake Guentzel play — it could’ve been during his 84-point season in 2021-22, but who knows, really — I began to think he was underrated.

Two seasons shortened by COVID-19 and a shoulder injury had seemed to obscure the fact that he’d turned into a reliable 40-goal scorer, based on pace. Was Sidney Crosby responsible for some of that? Sure, but Guentzel, despite a lack of any truly elite physical tool, thought the game at a level that seemed rare. Personally, I wasn’t quite sure I’d ever seen it. Not from a winger, at least.

So, I was almost relieved to be lightly scolded by a general manager over the summer. We had Guentzel lower than we should’ve, the executive said, in our NHL Tiers Project, and it was time to lobby.

“If the point of hockey is to win, (Guentzel has) got to go up,” the GM said. “He’s so, so good. He does everything right. He gets pucks on the wall. He makes little defensive plays. He makes offensive plays. He’s not an elite athlete, maybe, but his brain is elite in an all-around sense.”

The end result was the best winger Sidney Crosby will ever play with, an enormous coup for the Hurricanes and a trade that could tilt the balance of power in the Eastern Conference, if not in the league. Guentzel is that good. He’s going to fit in with the Hurricanes that well. And Carolina needed a player like him — for his brain, yeah, but also his elite point-production — that badly. He’ll help on the power play, too; Pittsburgh’s issues there had little to do with him. It’s the all-in move that the Hurricanes roster has deserved for years. No player on the market is better at turning puck possession into points. What’s Carolina’s biggest issue? You guessed it.

For the Penguins, the return feels light. Bunting is a top-nine forward with pros (his ability to produce with an elite center, as he did in Toronto) and cons (among them some ugly defensive numbers in Carolina). He’ll add something for the two years remaining on his contract. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about three decent-but-not-great forward prospects, but I’ll say this: Pittsburgh’s prospect pool was shallow and short. There was no quality, outside the very the top, and there certainly wasn’t quantity.

Kyle Dubas, if nothing else, fixed half of the problem. And Guentzel, for all his gifts, is a pending UFA who is currently out with an injury. Expecting a blue-chipper, a roster player and a first-round pick would’ve been foolish. There’s middle ground between that, though, and trading a dollar for a quarter, three dimes and a piece of gum, and it feels like Pittsburgh came close to the latter.

Hurricanes grade: A
Penguins grade: C-

Jake Guentzel likely will be well worth the return for Carolina. (James Guillory / USA Today)

Eric Duhatschek: Late afternoon to early evening to even later in the evening on Jake Guentzel watch felt a little like participating in a game show, in which the host annoyingly keeps the contestants dangling for hours and hours before finally revealing the prize winner.

OK, we knew the winner early on — it was the Carolina Hurricanes. But until you knew what the Hurricanes surrendered to get the best winger on the trade board, you didn’t really know how to react, especially if you’re a Pittsburgh fan. Was it enough? A little underwhelming? A lot underwhelming? Could it ever have been enough?

In the end, it felt thin on the Pittsburgh side, which made it a clear sweep on every front for Carolina. But let’s start with the idea of Penguins GM Kyle Dubas orchestrating a bidding war for his prized asset, because everybody loved Guentzel – and why wouldn’t they? He’s 29, a pure sniper with a fabulous playoff pedigree, and someone who could lift anyone from Stanley Cup wannabe to legit contender.

It’s also why negotiations dragged on before finally going Carolina’s way. Operationally, the Hurricanes ultimately went against everything the organization had stood for since Tom Dundon took over as owner — and gave up reasonable assets to add a player as a rental. In the past, Carolina resisted the urge to load up at the deadline and ultimately discovered that didn’t work. Once they got to the playoffs, and really needed a difference-maker who could tilt those games, they didn’t have anyone to turn to.

Guentzel, they hope, can be that guy.

That’s a lot to ask, but then again, Guentzel’s playoff past suggests he could fit the bill. Guentzel broke into the NHL in the middle of the 2016-17 NHL season and scored almost a point a game in 40 regular-season games. From there, he gained even greater notoriety for the 13 goals he produced in 25 playoff games, as the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. And Guentzel was even better in playoff year 2, with a staggering 21 points in 12 games. Those 58 points in 58 career playoff games? That counts for general managers at this time of the year.

The only caveat with Guentzel’s resume to this point is that you can get a lot accomplished in the NHL when Sidney Crosby is getting you the puck – or even is just out there on the ice with you a lot. That’s because Crosby commands a lot of attention from the opposition, which in turn makes it easier to find the seams in the defensive coverage if you’re fortunate enough to be riding shotgun with him.

Guentzel’s greatest strength is his ability to find the soft spots in the offensive zone and then finish around the net. His excellent eye-to-hand coordination means a pass doesn’t necessarily have to be picture-perfect for him to get it in the net.

The problem with Carolina is, once you get past Sebastian Aho, the quality of centers falls off quickly. Currently among Hurricanes forwards, only Aho is on pace to score 30 goals. He’s at 24. No one else has more than 19. Balance is great, but balance sometimes only takes you so far. And so far, it hasn’t taken Carolina to a Stanley Cup Final in the Rod Brind’Amour era.

If Brind’Amour chooses to play Aho with Guentzel, can the chemistry he had with Crosby be duplicated — and quickly? Maybe. Probably. But if Guentzel slides in beside the other centers on the roster — Jack Drury, or Jordan Staal or Jesperi Kotkaniemi — well, that’s not the same, is it?

Guentzel’s hockey sense makes you think though, he’ll find a way to make it work — wherever he slots in. He’s a quick study. Guentzel was in the final year of a contract that pays him $6 million per season and he had a 12-team modified no-trade clause. Not every 5-foot-10 forward is necessarily prized at this time of year, because the physical play usually gets tougher in the playoffs. But his size hasn’t hampered Guentzel in playoffs past — and there’s no reason to suspect it will be going forward.

He’s been out since Feb. 14, recovering from an upper-body injury, but has been skating, so conditioning shouldn’t be an issue. If he’s back by mid-March, that should be enough time for him to get the rust off, get his timing up to speed and then familiarize himself with whichever center they settle on to play with him.

On the other side of the equation, the fact that Pittsburgh took back Michael Bunting from Carolina was hardly a surprise. Bunting’s history with Dubas is well-established — and goes back to their Sault Ste. Marie days. Bunting joined the Hurricanes as a free agent last summer, signing a three-year contract for a modest AAV of $4.5 million. So essentially, he was a free player for them. Bunting was a good player, riding shotgun with Auston Matthews in Toronto, so he should find a home with either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Still, with Guentzel coming in, Bunting became expendable.

The rest of the package depends on how you like the fact that the first-round pick is conditional, as is the fifth-rounder, and that the Hurricanes made the trade and didn’t part with Alexander Nikishin, Bradley Nadeau or Scott Murrow, who were 1-2-3 on Scott Wheeler’s list of top Carolina prospects.

Instead, in Ponomaryov, Koivunen and Lucius, they got Carolina’s sixth-, seventh- and ninth-ranked prospects. All might eventually play. Will any reach Guentzel’s heights? Probably not.

In truth, it feels like a true steal.

Carolina paid only a reasonable price to acquire a player whose upside is great. Maybe even championship great. Pittsburgh got quantity over quality. That rarely ever ends well.

Hurricanes grade: A
Penguins grade: C

(Photo of Jake Guentzel: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

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