Kaiden Guhle would never have slid past the Montreal Canadiens’s 16th overall pick at the 2020 NHL Draft. The prospect is simply too great a match. He embodies the values of the organization, how they want their players to conduct themselves on and off the ice surface, and — like Marc Bergevin often says — plays a position where you can never have too much depth.
With Guhle’s pick, the Habs stacked their defence with players who could handle a large amount of minutes in the future. The defenceman played upwards of half the games with the Prince Albert Raiders last season and it’s a safe bet that, whenever the WHL restarts, his responsibilities will only increase, which will also help his production.
Guhle scored 40 points last season for the Raiders, a respectable total for a draft-year defenceman. As his physical development continues, the Junior game will only get easier and easier for him. Hopefully he expands his offensive capabilities and flirts with the league scoring lead for defencemen in the next couple of years.
Eight voters and the EOTP community placed Guhle in their top 10.
You could expect a high first-round pick to debut even higher on the board, but due to the amount of great young talents the organization amassed, the prospect plateaued at eighth. To climb past some of the exciting names ahead of him, Guhle will have to further prove himself.
I’m a little more optimistic when it comes to the 2020 first-rounder. His upside and the many pro-like elements of his game had me confidently sliding him up the list.
History of #8
Guhle is one of the best skaters of the 2020 draft class. In time, his speed, acceleration, and agility will enable him to stop NHLers just like he stops Junior players, especially considering that his inescapable mobility is complemented by suffocating range.
The defenceman’s pure tools made him one of the better rush-defenders in Mitch Brown’s tracking project. Attackers seldom used his side of the ice to attack, and when they did, they quickly regretted it. He immediately swatted the puck away from their blades with long-range pokechecks or laid them to the ice with thunderous hits.
If the attackers managed to pick up a bit more speed against him, well they just delayed the inevitable; Guhle backed off a bit more, forming a wall at his blue-line, forcing them to dump the puck around him. In-zone, Guhle continues to bully. He plays the initiator role, jumping on puck-carriers and pinning them to the boards to allow one of his forwards to sweep in and take possession.
His effectiveness doesn’t come only from brute force, but refined technique: shuffle-steps to match the attacker’s speed, angling techniques to close down space and passing lanes, and the use of pressure points to keep them glued to the walls. Guhle’s low and athletic position gives him leverage against opponents. He applies his weight to their hips and prevents any escape.
Offensively, the defenceman scores by activating in two ways: off the rush for shots at the top of the circles and in the offensive zone for backdoor plays. In the recent Team Canada camp scrimmages, there was also more conscious effort on his part to sidestep defenders and improve the location of his shots. He picked up an assist by dragging the puck slightly to the middle before stepping wide to fire past an opponent. A forward picked up the rebound and put in an empty net.
I used to question Guhle’s stick-handling abilities, but after more viewings, the mechanics of it are relatively fine — at least NHL-average. He dribbles with the heel of his blade and rolls the puck with his top-hand (he doesn’t hack at it like many other defence-first blue-liners). His upper body is stable as he skates up-ice, so even if his shuffling movements aren’t as precise and quick as a Mattias Norlinder, the puck rarely springs off his blade when he executes difficult manoeuvres.
In other words, I have no doubt that Guhle can master the technical aspects of the offensive game. To start making use of his techniques and become at least a middle-of-the-pack offensive threat from the back-end, however, a couple of aspects of his game will need to be reinforced.
The first is awareness. Guhle simply doesn’t take in information at a high enough rate. When the puck moves to his side of the ice, he doesn’t know what lanes are open. As a result, he loses a precious second scanning the ice after getting possession, enough time for the opposing defence to move and counter his potential plays.
This is the biggest reason why Guhle resorts to so many uncontrolled plays: dumps, rims, and chip-outs. (Although Mitch Brown’s data above suggests that this problem may be overstated since the defenceman doesn’t make many controlled exits per 60 minutes, he attempts more controlled plays than uncontrolled ones. He also succeeds in making those controlled plays more often than not.)
The second element to improve is simply confidence. He was too skittish in the first two scrimmages with Team Canada. Of course, Guhle hadn’t played in a competitive game in nine months and he is one of the younger players at the camp. That being said, even considering those factors, he deferred to others too much, which affected the quality of his line’s possessions. He passed to teammates already under heavy forechecking pressure and forced them to dig pucks from the wall and come back defensively in a hurry after turnovers.
Guhle needs to expand his comfort zone, and for that he needs to try plays, even if it means a low success rate at first. Team Canada’s camp is maybe not the best setting for it as he is competing for a spot and trying to limit mistakes, but I hope to see him figure out the limits of his abilities when the WHL starts.
Once he becomes more aware and confident, new developmental paths will open up for him, like offensive manipulation, something he barely does currently.
Alexander Romanov, a defenceman whose standout attribute is an aggressive defensive game, is penciled in the top four of future Canadiens teams. Romanov may not bring much offence to the lineup, yet the organization and the fanbase alike value him as a key prospect regardless.
In his draft year, Romanov lacked the awareness and control that now make him the deadly shutdown presence that he is. His play with the puck? Very limited. The defenceman’s most common breakout tactic was rimming the disc blindly up the boards with the hope that one of his wingers stood ready to catch it. In the offensive zone, he simply smashed every pass on net with little forethought.
Guhle isn’t Romanov. He is actually a better prospect than Romanov was in his draft year, and maybe even in 2018-19.
Guhle skates with the same agility, but he is 6’3”. He plays the same physical brand of defence, but he is 25 pounds heavier, which will give him the leverage necessary to pin and drop many NHL forwards, too.
All in all, the disappointment over some of the prospects not selected by Montreal, notably Dawson Mercer, seems to have distorted the perception of Guhle for many.
Unfulfilled draft expectations shouldn’t weigh down the defenceman. He is a part of the organization now, has top-four potential, and a better chance of reaching that role than all of the other defensive prospects ranked on this list the day they were drafted by the Canadiens.
So don’t be surprised if Guhle makes Team Canada’s roster for the World Junior Championship in a defensive role, and then the following year leverages his above-average skating ability to develops into a puck-mover, earning a roster spot with Montreal in 2022.
Guhle has taught hard lessons to those who underestimate him. If you don’t closely monitor his progress, you might get stunned by how rapidly he emerges.