After some speculation ahead of the first day of the 2020 NHL Draft that the Montreal Canadiens were considering trading their first-round pick, Marc Bergevin decided to hold onto it instead and add another defence prospect to his system. The selection was Kaiden Guhle, a defenceman from the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders who was generally regarded as the third-best blue-liner in the draft.
It was a strong defensive game that earned him that placement. Outside of Jake Sanderson (who was chosen fifth overall by the Ottawa Senators), he was seen as one of the top defensive defenceman in the class.
A direct comparison between the fifth and 16th player of the draft isn’t a fair one as it’s obvious that Sanderson has a much better offensive game to round out his ability. However, looking just at defensive play, the two are somewhat comparable. Both are excellent at breaking up plays in their own zones and gathering pucks that get knocked loose.
Both take a smothering approach to their defence, giving no space for forwards to work the puck around them. Guhle may be even better at that ability in the neutral zone, and you can see from the chart above that his side of ice was rarely selected by the opposition for a rush. He crowds his man as he approaches, and there’s little room to make a play.
The foundation of the defenceman’s rush defence is his skating ability, one of the best in the draft class. Guhle is perfectly centred and stable. He doesn’t overreach with his stick, but consistently has it in front of him to deny space and aggressively angle forwards toward the boards. If the approaching forward drops his head or pushes the puck too far ahead of him, Guhle strikes. He swings his hips around and rams the opponent, separating him from the puck and giving him no chance to recover.
Even shifty WHL forwards have trouble moving around the defenceman. As he can dance from edge to edge and cover an immense radius with his stick and his high mobility, even the best of feints are ineffective against him. An attacker might beat him laterally for a second, but Guhle can immediately pivot and explode to correct his mistake and punish the opponent.
In his own zone, the defenceman is equally aggressive. He closes hard and quick on the opposition, breaking plays with his long stick, pinning players to the boards, and shoving them away from the puck with one-hand. As the defenceman already has NHL strength, WHL attackers have to elude him quickly or they risk kissing the ice.
Away from the puck, unlike many other Junior defencemen who tune in and out of games, Guhle is constantly monitoring his surroundings, a sentinel committed to keeping forwards away from his area of the ice. His stick constantly moves to deny passing lanes and swat pucks away. That said, the defenceman can sometimes get carried away in his aggressive approach and leave his post to attempt a hit that only opens ice for the opposition.
He wasn’t nearly so effective when the defensive duties are complete and it’s time to head in the opposite direction, but as the year went on the defenceman added more deception to his passes, looking off his intended passing target and hitting the middle more. His low-risk approach also kept his turnover rate quite low, but he will need to continue working on his puck management under pressure. When forecheckers give him a dose of his own medicine and limit his room to work, the pressure can get to him.
Guhle is more comfortable away from the puck on breakouts. He rapidly activates with the rush to help his team break neutral-zone traps, which allows him to arrive as a trailer in the offensive zone for shots on net.
Much of Guhle’s offensive value is derived from his shot. The puck explodes off his stick and the defenceman also looks to improve the location of his releases, jumping down into space for wristers and even cutting to the slot when defenders allow him a lane to do so. He is also constantly hunting backdoor plays. When teammates control the puck on the half-wall, he slides down cross-ice, stick on the ice, looking to fetch a pass.
That being said, the defenceman’s mobility advantage will be reduced at the NHL level, which could prevent him from finding space in the same way. He isn’t a skilled and manipulative enough stick-handler to beat defenders one-on-one to create that space for himself. It’s improbable that he turns into a point-getter at the NHL level. Rush activations and blue-line shots will likely be his sole offensive contributions.
The professional-level defensive game could accelerate his path to the NHL. Montreal could have a player to start on its third pair in as little as a year’s time. The good news for him is that the Canadiens have very strong depth on defence right now, especially on the left side, so he won’t be rushed into the league and has time to improve on his weaknesses.
The team would surely like to see him get more comfortable while playing the puck. It’s clear at this point that Bergevin is trying to construct a defence corps of players who can skate well enough to not get beaten by skilled forwards while playing the puck up to more skilled forwards, and Guhle’s game isn’t quite there yet.
He could also stand to get a bit more creative in the offensive zone, which is a fairly general criticism of the group Bergevin is putting together. He can’t spot open teammates quickly enough to be a distributor, relying more on other players to get things moving, so improving that area would boost his chances of making the team.
The competition is going to be tight at his position. Alexander Romanov was just added to the NHL roster a few months ago, and Jayden Struble is rapidly progressing in the NCAA on his path to the league. Then there’s Mattias Norlinder, who offers something completely different to all the options, and may be the top defensive prospect in the system right now (whether Bergevin regards him as a future member of his lineup or not is another question). This can be seen as a safe pick by the general manager with a low-level roster spot in mind, but defence and skating are excellent bases to start from, and already good enough to project him as an NHL player.