Guentzel picking up slack for Notre Dame

A nice mix of veterans and a strong freshman class has Notre Dame off to a surprising start.

But perhaps no one in that mix has been more impressive for the Irish, 6-2-1 overall and 4-1-1-1 in the CCHA, than senior forward Ryan Guentzel.

The 6-foot, 180-pound winger is off to a tremendous start with 12 assists and 13 points in just nine games this season. The fourth-year lineup regular had never scored more than 11 points in any of his previous three seasons as a member of the Irish.

Last season, Guentzel put up only six points, all assists, while playing the majority of the season on the fourth line.

“Ryan’s been a role player for us,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “He’s always had the skills to be an impact player.”

They’re shining through now, and at a great time for Notre Dame.

Jackson’s squad lost three major components of its offense to NHL contracts in the offseason when winger Kyle Palmieri and defensemen Ian Cole and Teddy Ruth signed with Anaheim, St. Louis, and Columbus, respectively. Something had to give if the Irish were going to recover from the loss of so much firepower.

Guentzel and fellow senior Joe Lavin were only the only seniors on campus this past summer. The two of them spent the summer working hard, both on their own games, and with the young freshmen Jackson’s staff brought in.

Interacting with the 10 freshmen who were brought in to help fill the void of graduation and players jumping to the professional ranks, Guentzel’s leadership was going to be valuable.

“I felt he did a great job this summer,” Jackson said. “He got the opportunity to be a bigger factor, and Ryan seems fully intent on being a bigger factor.”

The work paid dividends even before the drop of the first puck this season. Both were elected by their peers as captains, with Lavin getting the “C” and Guentzel an “A”. Guentzel seized the opportunity afforded him, and has made it his own through his work ethic.

“He has a leadership presence on the ice,” said Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron, whose team split with the Irish last weekend. “Especially on a team that has had so much talent that either graduated or moved on to places like the NHL.”

A hard-nosed right winger, Guentzel has been known as a skilled two-way forward during his time at Notre Dame. He has been utilized in every situation — power plays and penalty kills included — mainly as a defensive stalwart.

This offseason, he worked on his offensive touch, and it has shown. He posted one goal and four points last weekend against Bowling Green, giving him eight points in CCHA play.

“I like him,” said Bergeron, who was an assistant coach at Miami before taking over at Bowling Green this season. “Over my time [in the CCHA], he’s kind of been under the radar. He doesn’t get the attention he deserves.”

Jackson paired Guentzel with fellow senior Ben Ryan and freshman Anders Lee to start the season, and the trio spent the first eight games together. The combination was dynamite, with Guentzel putting up 13 points, Lee tacking on a team-high seven goals and Ryan posting 10 points.

“I’m not afraid to give older players a chance to show what they can do,” Jackson said. “Ryan has embraced the opportunity.”

The season is still young, and Guentzel will have some great challenges ahead with a trip to No. 8 Michigan, a series with No. 16 Michigan State, and trips to No. 10 North Dakota and No. 4 Miami over the next eight games. But there’s every reason to believe that if the Irish are successful, Guentzel will be right in the middle of it.

Jackson suggests that Guentzel’s biggest challenge will be to sustain the great start, since he has not been a scorer during his career in South Bend. However, Jackson believes that Guentzel has the ability to do just that.

Only time will tell if he’s right about his senior leader who will finish his final season with a career high in points, no matter how many more he scores from this point forward.