Each week we take an in-depth look at young members of the organization while providing an overview of Habs prospects playing at the junior (OHL, WHL), collegiate (NCAA) level.
This year’s edition of the World Junior Cup Under-20 is unique. Not only due to the circumstances under which it will be played, but also because Canada can pick from a larger pool of talented players due to the delayed start of the National Hockey League. In a normal year, Dylan Cozens, Bowen Byram, Quinton Byfield, and Kirby Dach would have likely remained with their respective organization, but in this bizarro world, they are a lock to make the team — which means they push everyone else down in the depth chart.
Fortunately for Kaiden Guhle, who joined the training camp last week, the back end has more openings. The bottom-three spots after Jamie Drysdale, Thomas Harley, and Byram will be awarded based on performance and chemistry.
The Habs first-rounder’s physique might even give him a leg up on the competition. Even if he is only 18 years old (the tournament is often called a ‘‘19-year-old event’’) few players would match his strength and imposing frame. And Guhle is not only mature physically; his attention to defensive details makes him a complement to the more offensively-minded Harley, Byram, and Drysdale.
Of course, at the end of the camp, the young blue-liner might be told to come back next year. Team Canada could prefer a right-handed blue-liner over him. After all, there are only five of them at camp and complementary handedness matters to most coaching staffs. That being said, if the selection were based solely on last weekend’s game, Guhle should make the team regardless of that factor.
It wasn’t a perfect performance from him, his puck management was suspect at times — that will happen when a player’s last competitive game was nine months ago. Such a large period of time away from the ice tends to make weaknesses pop up a lot more. But the prospect still managed to show his brand of hockey and, in turn, why he would be a valuable addition to the team.
Here are a couple of shifts from Saturday’s game that encapsulate the prospect’s performance. Guhle wears #9 for Team Red. If you ever lose him in a battle, look for the tall lefty player squashing Whites on the boards.
White’s tight coverage on Guhle’s first play made it challenging. He received a D-to-D pass and skated up only to see all passing lanes clogged, which forced him to send the puck back to his pressured partner. A quicker execution on the return pass, or on a feed to either wingers on the walls, would have led to a better play.
Guhle followed up this misplay with a great defensive sequence. He stayed in poke-check and stick-lift range of his assigned attacker and when he got the puck, pinned him to the backwall allowing a teammate to sweep in and take possession. The pin was perfectly executed: Guhle approached in a ‘‘stick on puck’’ position and then applied his weight on the hips and hands of the opponents, preventing any potential escape.
Look at the defenceman’s low position. He has all the leverage against fellow giant Kirby Dach and even manages to obtain the inside position on the puck.
The disc gets pushed up the boards and reaches White’s blue-liner. The Red’s high defensive winger, probably by design, protected the middle of the ice instead of cutting low-to-high plays on the wall.
Guhle follows his man back to the net and releases him to his partner standing there. The puck gets rimmed back down and, once again, he pressures Dach on the back wall and wins inside positioning by shoving the attacker.
The puck exits the zone before again re-entering on the stick of the Blackhawks centreman. The NHLer attacks along the wall lane where he sees Guhle on an interception trajectory. As the defenceman approaches, he extends his stick to block passing lanes to the middle — a perfect angling maneuver that closes all space around the attacker.
Wanting to avoid being plastered to the boards for a third time in 20 seconds, Dach raises his hands to protect himself and loses the puck.
The shift ends with other breakout misplays from Guhle. He receives a D-to-D pass low in the defensive end, but instead of turning up-ice to look at his options, he traps himself behind the net. The opposing forecheck steals possession. He cuts a pass, gets possession back, but then banks the puck off the glass instead of hitting an open teammate down the middle. The other team regroups rapidly and counterattacks, catching Red on a line change.
That last middle-pass was again a difficult play. Guhle would have had to settle the puck, raise his head to locate the mid-option and use his backhand to reach it, but the dump-out, while being ‘‘safer’’ in the moment, placed his team in trouble anyway a few seconds later.
This can be a lesson of the value of controlled passes for the defenceman. They aren’t necessarily riskier, a glass-and-out play forces you to defend another rush moments later.
On this shift, Guhle slotted in on the right side of Byram.
Byram easily surpasses Guhle in all offensive and transition facets of the game, but his awareness of opposing maneuvers and one-on-one defensive ability lag behind the Habs defenceman. As a result, Guhle spends most of the shift covering for his partner’s weaknesses.
The play starts in the neutral zone. After multiple exchanges of possession, a 2-on-2 develops against the two Red defencemen, Guhle and Byram. Assuming that his teammate would take Cozens, the off-puck attacker, Guhle pressures the carrier with another well executed angling technique.
But Byram doesn’t look over his shoulder enough or doesn’t register the unfolding play; he defends it like a 3-on-2, which leaves a lot of space for Cozens. So when the puck slips between the stick and skates of Guhle, Cozens gets a shooting opportunity from the slot. As he prepares his release, however, a quick backtracking Guhle fully extends his blade to knock the puck away. A few seconds later, when it bounces to another attacker, he does it again.
The Habs defenceman spends the following seconds defending the front of the net. As White brings a duo of attackers around the blue paint, Guhle doesn’t switch to pressure the puck carrier on the backwall like he did in the previous shift, instead he recovers to the near-post to avoid leaving Byram alone versus two.
Red then moves up ice. Guhle joins his forwards on the rush but dumps the puck in the offensive zone when he gets it. He helps the line change but, once again, forces his team to immediately regroup to forecheck and defend a counter rush.
For a second time, Byram is late to recognize the change of situation. Dawson Mercer skates past him on the breakout and receives the puck, threatening to break away. By jumping to the side of his partner and knocking the puck airborne, Guhle stops the opposing forward from getting a clean look at the net.
Guhle didn’t just blunder in possession. He also had his better offensive moments.
This rush in the second period shows his potential as a puck-mover. On this specific regroup, he could pass to the winger at the far blue-line, but instead uses the little runway he gets by hinging behind his partner to accelerate through the neutral-zone. As the defence backs off, he recognizes his chance to cut to the middle of the offensive zone to release.
If Guhle can muster the confidence to consistently make plays like this over the next few games while under pressure, it will be hard for the coaching staff to not give him a spot on Canada’s blue-line. He would become the shutdown and transition presence the team needs to prop up their talented cast of forwards.
Sunday’s scrimmage showed some encouraging signs. Guhle awkwardly supported plays at times and missed some passes, but he also managed to reach a teammate cross ice and a zone away by threading the puck through a forechecker. And he assisted on a goal by stepping around a defender to fire on net. Jamieson Rees put in the rebound.
If you want to catch Guhle in action, the next game is today at 11:35 Eastern time.
NCAA/USHL Season to date
|Cole Caufield||2019||RW||Big Ten||Wisconsin||5||1||4||5|
|Jack Gorniak||2018||LW||Big Ten||Wisconsin||5||1||2||3|
|Jayden Struble||2019||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||0||0||0||0|
|Jordan Harris||2018||LD||Hockey East||Northeastern||0||0||0||0|