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Penguins send Jake Guentzel to Carolina for Michael Bunting, 3 prospects and 2 conditional picks

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Florida Panthers

Dec 8, 2023; Sunrise, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Jake Guentzel (59) looks on against the Florida Panthers first period at Amerant Bank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (AP) Jake Guentzel’s arrival in the NHL seven years ago helped propel the Pittsburgh Penguins to the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup.

The Carolina Hurricanes are wagering the gifted goal scorer can do the same a little further south.

The Penguins traded the high-scoring forward to the Hurricanes on Thursday night in exchange for forward Michael Bunting, prospects Ville Koivunen, Vasili Ponomarev and Cruz Lucius and conditional first- and fifth-round picks in this year’s draft.

The first-rounder becomes Philadelphia’s second-rounder if the Hurricanes don’t reach the final, and Pittsburgh only gets the fifth if Carolina wins it all for the second time in franchise history.

“The decision to trade Jake Guentzel, with his contract set to expire this offseason, was one of the most difficult decisions that I have had to make in my time in management,” first-year general manager/director of hockey operations Kyle Dubas said, adding that Guentzel had become a pillar in the community and a fan favorite. “Jake’s competitiveness, tenacity and spirit, combined with his talent have produced some of the greatest moments of this era of Penguins hockey.”

The 29-year-old Guentzel gives the Hurricanes a proven goal scorer who thrives in the postseason spotlight. Guentzel has reached the 40-goal plateau twice in eight seasons and has 58 points (24 goals, 34 assists) in 58 playoff games. His 13 goals during the 2017 playoffs led the league and helped the Penguins become the first team in nearly 20 years to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Guentzel has 22 goals in 50 games this season for Pittsburgh. He’s currently on long-term injured reserve with an upper-body injury suffered in a loss to Florida on Feb. 14, though he’s eligible to come off Sunday. Guentzel had been skating with the Penguins in recent days. He participated in the team’s pre-game skate on Thursday wearing a black jersey, indicating he has been cleared for contact.

His departure could be one of several moves made by Dubas by Friday afternoon’s deadline. Pittsburgh is languishing near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division with five weeks left in the regular season and was drilled 6-0 by rival Washington just hours before Guentzel was dealt.

The return is the first wave of what is likely to be a significant youth movement in the coming months for the NHL’s oldest roster.

That didn’t make it easy for the players who watched Guentzel evolve from a somewhat unheralded and publicly reticent prospect into a vital contributor and important voice on one of the league’s marquee teams.

“He’s a great player, a great teammate,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “A friend. I think he did everything he possibly could in his time here. Just a privilege to play with him for the course of that time. Great memories and that’s all I can say.”

While a little undersized at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Guentzel’s hockey intelligence and knack for finding open ice made him a perfect complement to Crosby almost from the moment Guentzel arrived in the NHL during the 2016-17 season. The duo joined Bryan Rust to form the “Sid and the Kids” line that helped power the Penguins past Nashville in the Stanley Cup finals.

It was hardly a fluke. Guentzel leaves Pittsburgh with 219 goals, eighth-most in the history of a franchise that boasts more than its fair share of talented scorers. Guentzel has for the most part been highly durable despite often playing in high-traffic areas of the ice. He has played in at least 90% of Pittsburgh’s games five times in his seven full seasons, the only exceptions being 2019-20 when a shoulder injury ruined an All-Star campaign and this year, when offseason wrist surgery had him miss a handful of games to start the season followed by the upper-body injury on Valentine’s Day in a loss to Florida.

Guenztel is beloved in Pittsburgh and there are typically lines out the door at a local milkshake chain that offers half off Guentzel’s signature flavor the day after he scores. Yet with his asking price in free agency figuring to be outside Pittsburgh’s budget, Guentzel joins the likes of other franchise fixtures with close ties to their Cup runs like goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, forward Phil Kessel and defenseman Brian Dumoulin that have headed elsewhere in recent years for various reasons.

Bunting, 28, has 13 goals and 23 assists for the Hurricanes and has topped 20 goals in a season twice in his five-year career. Bunting also reunites with Dubas, who signed Bunting as a free agent with Toronto in 2021.