When the Montreal Canadiens made Kaiden Guhle their first-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, the choice was met with mixed reactions. The concern was whether they had simply forgone better options in favour of size, something we’d seen them do in the past with their first-round selections.
There was, and remains, a lot more to Guhle’s game than his physicality. Though his draft-plus-one season was essentially cancelled by the pandemic, samples from the World Junior Championship — as well as a short stint with the Laval Rocket — suggested they may have found their next mainstay on the blue line.
Back in full-time WHL action for the 2021-22 season, Guhle was a force. The Prince Albert Raiders were not, however, and elected to trade him to the Edmonton Oil Kings for a king’s ransom. Carson Latimer, Eric Johnston, and four draft picks formed a hefty price, but Edmonton would be glad they paid it.
Guhle went on to be an integral part of an Oil Kings squad that finished second in their division, and went on to take the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions. Guhle was named MVP in the playoffs, putting up 16 points and shutting down the best that the opponents had to offer on a nightly basis.
Though they fell short in their Memorial Cup aspirations, it was a stellar season for their star defenceman, who now sets his sights on professional hockey.
Every member of our panel, including the community vote, placed Guhle in their top five. Four of us, myself included, even saw him as a top-three player under 25 years of age. There is a lot of confidence in his ability to eventually become a significant contributor for the Canadiens.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Our panel has been relatively high on him from the very beginning. He debuted inside the top 10 at eighth, jumped to fifth in 2021, and managed to climb one more spot without much room to move this year.
History of #4
Guhle is a magnificent defender, and was a complete nightmare for opposing teams at the Junior level. He’s big, well-positioned, uses his reach, and can flat-out annihilate puck-carriers who enter his wheelhouse.
Entering the offensive zone on his side of the ice is a dangerous proposition. He reads the rush incredibly well, keeps excellent gap control, and closes those gaps with punishing force when the moment is right. Rarely does he put himself out of position in so doing, offering a great balance of being able to stifle the rush at the blue line with very little risk of ensuing odd-man scoring chances.
He has no qualms about stepping up at the offensive blue line either, often shutting down the opposition’s transitional efforts before they can even get into the neutral zone. Again, he scans and reads the play very well in so doing, so you’ll rarely see these turn into much going the other way.
His offensive game has also been coming along nicely since being drafted. He has a very good point shot, and typically favours a quick wrister that he can get on net through traffic.
His skating is excellent, with a long and smooth stride, and better top-end speed than you might expect from a player of his stature. This allows him to jump in and lead a rush, or form a second layer on the attack.
He is essentially the complete package, and though you will find defencemen with better offensive output, those players typically won’t have the shutdown abilities that he possesses.
There are some moments where he struggles with puck movement under pressure. Particularly if he gets the puck below his goal line, if there isn’t an immediate and evident outlet pass he can make, he’ll struggle to find the right play and bank it hard off the boards or glass. This did get better as last season went on, but could be something that we see popping up at times during his first professional season.
There are also still some rare occasions where he’ll lunge at a puck-carrier with his stick, putting himself at a disadvantage for body position. This has been less frequent in his game as he improves, but something he’ll have to be very mindful of with how some players in the AHL/NHL can exploit that.
These weaknesses are essentially just lingering aspects of his game that he has already gotten better at, so the coaches of the organization will simply need to exercise patience. He knows about these issues, and has a desire to be better, so they will become less frequent as he gains experience.
There is a good mix of high ceiling and high floor when it comes to Guhle. His odds of becoming a regular NHLer are extremely good, and the question is more where and when he fits into the Canadiens lineup than if he’ll make it there.
At his best, he becomes a top-pairing defenceman capable of putting up 40-plus points in a given season. At worst, the offense doesn’t come along as well as it could, and he still figures into a second- or bottom-pair role as a shutdown defender. It is very hard to see a universe where he isn’t an everyday blue-liner in the NHL.
The question of when he makes that jump won’t take long to be answered. There is an excellent chance that he spends the majority of this upcoming season with the Habs. A stint or two in Laval would neither be surprising nor detrimental to his development, but with where he’s currently at, I don’t think the team has six defencemen who are better than him. As such, he’ll get every chance to prove he belongs and earn himself a permanent role.
Main camp will be telling as to where he stands, and whether he’ll be starting in Montreal or Laval this year. Wherever that ends up being, we’ll be getting a first professional look at a player that could be a big part of the defence corps for a long time.