“Your talent sets your floor. Your character sets your ceiling.” – Bill Belichick
Welcome to the start of May 2020. Usually, by this time in the spring, the CHL is in the final rounds of the playoffs, the U-18 World Juniors has just wrapped up, and the draft order is set. This year, of course, none of that has happened. The CHL and the U18’s both were cancelled, and we’re no closer to knowing how the draft order will be set — or when it even will be — than we were last month.
Last week, a memo was reportedly sent out to teams, outlining the NHL’s point of view for holding the draft in June — despite the potential conclusion of the 2019-20 NHL season still being up in the air.
It’s a strange, weird time. But if the NHL decided just to go by the rankings as they stand today, the Colorado Avalanche would pick 29th. So over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the NHL 2020 draft eligible players who might be available in this range — plus a few that might fall to Colorado as a delightful surprise. One of those, of course, is left-handed defender Kaiden Guhle.
A former 1st overall pick in the 2017 bantam draft, Kaiden followed in the footsteps of his older brother Brendan (51st pick in the 2015 NHL draft), getting selected by Prince Albert. And while his first full WHL season started out somewhat rocky while he adjusted to the speed of major junior play, the younger Guhle came into his own in his second year and earned a solid reputation as a two-way defender with steadfast play in his own end.
While the points were hard to come by in his first year, Guhle managed 3 goals and 17 points in 65 regular season games during that initial season. He then added 3 assists in 23 playoff games in the spring of 2019, helping Prince Albert win the WHL Championship.
Midway though that first season, he established himself as a piece of the puzzle for Prince Albert, regularly taking shifts on both the PK and PP. Then, coming off the championship season, his play on both ends of the ice took a significant step forward. In the shortened 2019-20 season, he managed 11 goals and 40 points in 65 games — with six of those goals at even strength to go with 14 even strength primary points.
What we know
Kaiden is a well-rounded skater. He lacks explosive speed, but he’s got solid all-around footwork and he always seems to be moving. While he’ll never win a speed competition. his ability to quickly transition from skating forward to backwards faster — and smoother — than you’d expect from a player his size. For a big man, that transition and his east-to-west skating ability is impressive.
Knowing he’s nimble with his lateral footwork really helps out his defensive game. He’s a solid defender, smart but aggressive as well. Because he’s always moving, he breaks up a lot of defensive zone entries and finishes most of his checks. He does sometimes still take himself out of the play and get caught out of position, though — so making sure he has a forward covering for him is something he has to work on.
Once he has gathered the puck in the defensive zone, he transitions well utilizing short passes; he typically opts for the pass over skating with the puck. He does a good job of joining in the rush after passing out of the zone, although he could still use some work developing the ability to lead the rush when there’s more open ice to work with.
In the offensive zone, he’s good at keeping players in front of him and doesn’t take many risks with the puck — although he can be fairly predictable. Because he is always moving, the transition back to defending the neutral zone is pretty seamless for him. He has the ability to create space and time for himself, and he has a good shot — although he doesn’t use either ability as often as he maybe could. If he could add that layer and some creativity to his game, he might form into a solid 2 way defender in the NHL. But I do think the lack of creativity will hold his offensive numbers back from translating to the NHL.
Luckily, he’s been able to watch his older brother’s path in the NHL, so he knows what it takes on and off the ice and him having that role model is great for him. You could see that the off-ice training translated well on to the ice this past year, with his physical strength and improvements in skating from the previous season.
The question marks
The biggest questions for Guhle as we look at his likelihood of future NHL success are how he’ll adjust to the speed of the game, how his offense could translate, and if he’ll be able to develop enough creativity to make a play when the structure of the game breaks down. The NHL is a fast game, and only getting faster — so while skating wont be the problem for him, the decision-making speed could end up being a concern. He thrives in a very structured system, especially with the way he plays defense.
When the play and structure of his team’s game breaks down, it will be crucial to see if he can make the second and third read instead of coughing up the puck. While he is very good at the simple yet structured play, when that isn’t there it’s still too early to tell if he’ll be able to refrain from making a panic decision. The simple first pass has to be there for him at the moment — and he’ll need to shed that security blanket in order to be successful in the NHL.
What others are saying
“Solid skating, aggressive defenseman, who make the smart plays over the risky high reward ones” – NHL scout
“Guhle is a unique prospect in the sense that he has all the physical tools to be an impactful player but doesn’t project as one. The size and skating ability are undeniable. What he does with them is the rub. Defensively, he owns a good stick and gap control. Offensively, he lacks creativity and decisiveness. He’ll be an NHLer but the floor is much more achievable than the ceiling.” – Cam Robinson
Potential fit with Colorado
If Colorado opts to take Guhle, he’d likely be on the slow path to the NHL. He’ll first finish his 2 years of eligibility in the WHL and compete to make the Canadian WJC teams in 2021 and 2022, but would likely spent at least 1 to 2 seasons with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles before being called up to play a role on the third pair. With his profile in mind, he could be a solid compliment to Cale Makar or Sam Girard, being their reliable “stay at home” defensive pairing. Kind of a Ryan Graves 2.0 without the risky offensive flair and with more aggressive defensive defending who can skate well.
Guhle has lots to like, although it’s tough to feel confident in his offensive game unless he ends up riding shotgun to a pure offensive defensemen. The skating is solid and the hitting would be welcome, but the lack of creativity, even strength production, and confidence during messy plays mean that even a late first round selection might be slightly to rich for him.
In Colorado he would be a piece to their defensive puzzle, and there’s definitely a role for him in the pro game. But what that role could be seems slightly limiting, based on what we’ve seen so far.