At the start of the NCAA collegiate hockey season, two Pittsburgh Penguins draft picks began the next step of their respective hockey journeys together when Nebraska-Omaha traveled to Marquette, MI to face Northern Michigan.
Jake Guentzel, a 19-year-old freshman and 2013 third-round draft pick, and Josh Archibald, a 21-year-old junior and 2011 sixth-round draft pick, were roommates as the Mavericks embarked on their season-opening road trip in October.
Guentzel was able to pick the brain of Archibald, who was coming off a career-best 19 goals and 17 assists in 2012, to get some advice on what kind of adjustments would be necessary to transition to the college level.
“On the first road trip he was my roommate and he talked to me about what it takes and how much you have to work every night, and obviously that helped a lot,” Guentzel said. “He just said to play your game, and obviously you worked out getting here somehow so you just have to play your game and it will all work out.”
Sure enough, Guenztel has flourished in his first year of collegiate hockey since being named the USHL Rookie of the Year last season after scoring 29 goals and 44 assists for the Sioux City Musketeers. The left winger has two goals and nine assists through 16 games and has skated on the Mavericks’ top line alongside Brock Montpetit and Austin Ortega.
“It’s been great. He is a smart kid. A great kid,” Archibald said. “I was in his position as a freshman coming in, ya know, pretty young. It’s nice to be able to look up to someone older and that’s just what I tried to do and be there for him.”
Throughout UNO’s two-game weekend series against Colorado College, Guentzel could be found dangling and puck-handling behind the Tigers net.
Despite being only 19 and weighing 160 pounds soaking wet, the 5-foot-10 winger looked at ease battling for loose pucks deep in the Colorado College zone and setting up the Mavericks’ power-play from down low.
Guentzel certainly benefited from playing on the Olympic-sized ice sheet and hugged the right post Friday night when he dished the puck to Ian Brady for a first period power-play goal in UNO’s 4-2 loss to Colorado College.
“On the power-play, that’s where I like to set up guys and that’s where I am right now and I guess it works out,” Guentzel said.
Yes, the Woodbury, MN native will have less room for creativity on an NHL-sized rink, but playing behind the net has actually become a comfort zone for the Penguins prospect, who recently was tabbed the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s Rookie of the Month after posting a goal and six assists in November.
Did coach Dean Blais, now in his fifth season at UNO, expect the youngster to excel and succeed as fast as he has?
“No, it usually takes a little longer,” Blais admitted, “but a player that’s got hockey sense and has good hands like Jake is going to have opportunities to score.
“He played real well in Sioux City and that’s why we brought him in. Those are pretty good numbers for anyone, yet a high school senior. We needed him, we felt, and he hasn’t disappointed us at all.”
Scoring hasn’t been an issue for Archibald, who netted the Maverick’s game-tying goal with 7:15 remaining in UNO’s 3-3 tie against Colorado College at World Arena on Saturday night. He then blasted home the winning shot during UNO’s 2-1 victory against CC in the shootout.
He already has 11 goals and six assists this season and is on-pace to set another career-high for goals.
Archibald has been playing on coach Blais’ second line with Ryan Walters and Dominic Zombo, and he also skates on the team’s power-play unit where he notched an assist on Zombo’s second period goal.
“Josh has a good shot, scored some big goals and is a player that can make something happen out of nothing,” Blais said. “He is fast and is a very good player.”
The 5-foot-11, 176-pound right winger also had an impressive November stretch where he scored a goal in five consecutive games.
“I was playing with some pretty good guys – Walters and Zombo are great players – and I was in the right place at the right time during those games and they made the passes and I was lucky enough to put the puck in the net,” Archibald said.
One of the main reasons for the junior’s improved success is UNO’s new offseason weight program. Archibald said he gained at least 10 pounds of lean muscle this offseason – more than usual – and it has allowed him to play with more of a physical edge.
Archibald was listed at 183 pounds last year.
“I was definitely pretty small when I came in, weight wise (170 pounds),” Archibald said, “and it definitely helps in the corners being able to push guys off the puck and being able to hold your own.”
It is why Blais believes Guentzel is only going to get better as he continues to get older during his time at UNO. Once the freshman gets a full collegiate offseason weight training program under his belt he is only going to get stronger, which will help him improve his game in the corners and on the defensive end of the ice.
Guenztel is aware he needs to get stronger, too, but also would like to improve his shot and become more of a shooter by the time his tenure is up as a Maverick.
“I am a playmaker and I like to make plays and set up guys, but sometimes I have to be selfish and I want to shoot the puck and score,” Guentzel said.
Guentzel and Archibald both arrived at UNO as polished players and Blais believes the future remains bright for both of Pittsburgh’s young draftees.
“They are doing just fine and neither one of them have a whole lot wrong with their game,” Blais concluded. “Jake, I would like to see get a little bit stronger, and time and age will take care of that.
“Josh is a 20-30 goal scorer next year and possible Hobey Baker winner so he has a lot of potential, and I know Pittsburgh is happy with his development.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter via @jfelisko