Deep Dive: A look into Dylan Guenther’s game
For this piece, I opened a Twitter poll, announcing I would give the good people of Twitter the say in who this 2021 NHL Draft deep dive would be about. A man of my word, once the voting closed we arrived at a landslide consensus. The people’s choice was none other than former first-overall bantam selection Dylan Guenther of the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings.
With the overwhelming support to pen such a piece, alas, here I am, giving the people what they want! With over 20 games of clips, and 100’s of spell check errors, here is FCHockey’s first deep dive of the 2020-21 season, looking at the promising forward.
Guenther: The Tale of the Tape
Currently listed at six-foot-one, 170 pounds and born on April 10, 2003, in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2018 Guenther was plucked out of the Oil Kings backyard first overall after putting up 103 points in 30 games for the Northern Alberta X-Treme Bantam Prep of the CSSHL. After moving onto the midget prep program where he put up 58 points in 28 games as a first-year player, Guenther got a cup of tea with his major junior team in 2018-19 before making the full time jump in 2019-20.
As a rookie, Guenther cemented himself as a proven offensive commodity, ascending up the line up to play right wing on the Oil Kings top line alongside 20-year-old veteran center Riley Sawchuk and St. Louis Blues first-rounder Jake Neighbours. Due to the untimely presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, his rookie year was cut short, ending up with 26 goals, 33 assists and 59 points over a 58-game regular season schedule. His performance ultimately resulted in him being awarded the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s Rookie of the Year.
Without having played a game since early March due to pandemic restrictions and the WHL not set to return until early January 2021 where they will run an interdivisional regular-season schedule, Guenther stayed within the Edmonton vicinity and joined the AJHL’s Sherwood Park Crusaders on loan until December 2020.
Guenther’s Mental Game
Two of the most cliche sayings in player evaluation are the coined terms “tools” and “toolbox.” The easy explanation is that tools are the skills a player possesses such as stick handling, skating, shooting ability, puck protection, etc. and the toolbox is the mental elements of the game such as hockey sense, situational awareness and vision.
Tools cannot be utilized effectively and in a timely matter without an understanding of when to facilitate them. A player could have the skating ability of a figure skater or the flawless hands of my grandma crocheting scarves but if elite abilities are not implemented in the right setting, the effort is futile. The hierarchy of evaluation begins with the brain and this is an area where Guenther tends to excel and will be the area of his game that will define his ceiling as a player, junior, and beyond.
Guenther has carried offense with him at every stop along his hockey journey so far despite not always being the oldest at every level, the biggest or the most dynamic. While he carries his share of water (we will get to those areas later), Guenther’s ability to project and anticipate helps him facilitate plays on and off the puck.
Simply put, while others are playing checkers, Guenther is playing chess, seeing where he needs to be at Step C while the play is currently unfolding at Step A. He uses a variety of tactics to do this, most importantly a simple but commonly overlooked detail, keeping his eyes up and utilizing shoulder checks to collect information, seeing where pressure is coming from and where support is situated. It’s such a subtle thing but it’s often the difference between a player skating right into a cataclysmic event or making a crisp jaw-dropping play resulting in an assist of goal.
Clip 1: Guenther Surveying
Shoulder checking is such a vital habit for players to have and you see it at work here. As the strong-side winger on the breakout and his defender eluding pressure off his hip he realizes there is a high likelihood he will be getting the puck in this scenario. To prepare himself, he takes a quick survey of the ice while backpedalling to the wall to see where F2 on the Broncos forecheck is, whether pressure is coming down the strong-side wall or what his options are to transition the puck.
With the defender able to make a play to his forehand, Guenther is able to pivot to a forward stride and know that he has space to utilize. He is aware that the Bronco defense and center have regressed back into the neutral zone to guard against transition and that F2 is equal to F1 in the defensive zone, leaving a large passing seam to the weak-side winger who is in motion. A strong cross-ice pass between two skilled players yields a controlled entry and established possession for the Oil Kings’ attack to set up shop.
Given the speed of the game and the emphasis on structure, a good portion of the game is played outside of the dot lane due to tactics implemented to take away middle lanes, time, and space. While not every play or chance can be generated in transition, an attacking team has to force their opponents into making positional mistakes, allow their players the freedom to read the ice and take advantage of the allowed space.
Clip 2: Guenther’s Offensive Positioning
With play coming up the wall after a won puck battle in the corner, with the strong side defender still in the corner, the Winnipeg center and his two wings all try to take the same assignment of marking the Edmonton puck carrier. Seeing this, Guenther makes an effort to get the inside track to the middle of the ice between the defense as Neighbours widens the zone by slinging a pass to the weak-side defender.
With Winnipeg in complete disarray and a short 2-on-1 now created due to the puck carrier taking ice and Guenther presenting himself as a pass option, the Winnipeg defender is isolated without support, his toes directing to the shooter, and there is a clear pass lane thanks to Guenther’s angle to the play. Once Guenther gets the puck, all the retreating Winnipeg players can do is reach in on him as he goes cross-crease backhand for a good goal.
Speed is a difference-maker and more important as levels of the game progress. We have seen the damage players like Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon can do while going mach-speed on the ice. While having that momentum is huge, racing around all game and not assessing how to maximize opportunity by reading cues on the ice and maintaining angles on the attack can result in a lot of opportunities to make a play being left on the table.
On-puck deception is an area we will touch on next, but timing and spacing are huge in finding ice to create chances. Whether it be slowing up on the rush, shifting up gears to get ahead of an opponent to the net, or slightly cutting back on a player with momentum to get that extra bit of daylight. It’s a massive competitive advantage to pick spots.
Clip 3: Guenther Finding Lanes
While in transition, Guenther hits full stride, showing great acceleration with linear crossovers to gain significant momentum as he enters the zone as the middle-lane driver. Pushing the defense back with his speed, his linemate, Neighbours is able to hit Sawchuk cross-ice for the zone entry. Once Sawchuk has possession Guenther sees that he is creating a passing angle behind the weak-side defender.
Knowing this, he lets up on the gas, coasting on his inside edges behind the unsuspecting D. While the pass is relatively unconventional, Guenther is essentially all alone in front of the net and times a baseball swing attempt almost perfectly in a high-danger area.
The area that I would say Guenther likely needs the most work is in how he manipulates space with the puck on his stick. While no slouch in finding an option B when his initial option closes down, I find that Guenther often prefers a linear game instead of having to use the width of the rink, a staple I find in top kids who revert back to the habits they had when they could simply overwhelm with speed and skill. As we have seen, Guenther is great at finding passing lanes through the royal road and timing his attack routes through the funnel.
Deception is a huge part of the game and often the difference of a player able to play an “inside game” at the next level. The art of giving off false information by using cues on the ice can be as simple as a quick head or pump fake, a dynamic skating stance and use of edges or knowing when stick pressure is presented and exploding inside your opponent. The greatest players in the world are masters of controlling the opponent’s toes by getting them to bite and attacking their heels, opening up a whole new layer to the attack.
Clip 4: Guenther’s Vision
Here is a great example of Guenther combining all of his tools and reading a situation under pressure. Supporting the half wall, he gets the puck and sees daylight between the defender and the left wing. Notice how quickly he is able to read the ice and freeze #10 white. Guenther’s first step is directed towards the winger as he attempts to angle him off. This lunge to his right causes the winger to stop dead and point his skates towards the wall, his stick now resting in the air on his hip. Like dropping the magazine out of a gun, the defender is essentially defenseless as Guenther explodes inside his man to the open lane which is wide open. All #10 white can do is swing around and haul him down as Guenther is able to draw a penalty. More of this, please.
Clip 5: Guenther’s Defensive Positioning
This time we see Guenther on the receiving end of such a play inside his defensive zone. I do like Guenther’s play off of the puck, for the most part, especially his ability to avoid getting caught flat-footed, timing plays, the knack to take away hands, and his positioning in support of play. Still, he is naive at times and here the subtlest curveball causes hesitation on his part. On this play, a loose puck to the middle of the ice squirts through to Winnipeg’s D who presses the middle.
Aware his center has fallen, Guenther is isolated in a disadvantageous 1-on-2 scenario between the defenders and shades towards the middle of the ice, the higher danger area. He does a good job forcing the defender back to his forehand towards the wall and given his stance is able to stick with the defender and angle him towards the wall. Here comes the tough call, as Ladyman #5 black hides the puck in his hip pocket and drives wide, Guenther sees his partner #4 Zloty, scissor play back to the middle of the ice.
In an attempt to respect both an outside drive and a drop pass back to an open funnel shot, Guenther changes his path slightly to go right at the back hip of Ladyman, which ultimately proves fatal for his defensive positioning. Ladyman delays and drops the puck farther back ever so slightly creating the illusion a drop pass is coming. Taking the bait, Guenther is left in a lonely spot in defensive purgatory as Ladyman drives to the circle for a shot attempt.
In summary, the way Guenther thinks is what has led to a lot of his success. He’s not flawless, no player is, but as he rounds the other areas of his game, the mental game will lead the charge.
Now that we have seen how Guenther applies his fingerprints on the ice, let’s look at the abilities he can put into motion.
Guenther: The Goods
Imagine you work in an office setting and data entry is part of your everyday duties. Normally a lot of people can competently perform the task of typing without looking at their keys and seeing the digits flow onto their screen. With the introduction of another element, such as a phone call or an interaction with a colleague that requires further cognitive function to carry a conversation, chances are a large percent of the population is going to compromise one of the two tasks as there is an over-taxation.
As in sport, multitasking at a high level is common but few are able to independently layer skills without pause. This happens a lot at the junior level or even in minor pro where skating and stickhandling can occur simultaneously but when a pressing decision is required to pass or shoot, the players’ feet shut off as they look for the option. For most this is the difference between a player who is good and one who is great. This is what I like about Guenther as he is a skill stacker and can make decisions while performing skill plays at speed.
Clip 6: Skating Ability
Here is an example of the sum of his parts. Driving the middle, Guenther times his route to catch the puck on his forehand as he is in stride across the blue line. Instead of kicking the puck back out and driving the net for a rebound or tap-in attempt, Guenther goes right for the open ice in the middle of two defenders.
Once he has a stride on the strong-side defender, he drives toward his partner, isolating him in a short 2-on-1. In a holding pattern, the defender is frozen in an attempt to eliminate a pass and this is where Guenther explodes hard off of his outside leg and beelines past stick pressure right in tight to the goal by drawing the puck from his forehand to his backhand.
Although unsuccessful on the initial attempt, a second option is available later in the play as Swift Current’s break out attempt is stifled by the pressure he initially applied, Guenther finds time and space above detection and opens up his hips to put himself in a position to cleanly field a pass and get a second high-danger chance at the top of the crease.
Guenther’s skating ability is a strength to his game as we’ve seen in prior clips. Getting past the notion of simply saying a player is “fast”, let’s look at what yields success now and projects as a strength at the next level and how he is able to protect pucks as a result.
Clip 7: Guenther’s Skating Posture
Here’s a great visual for you. Guenther’s success with mobility starts with his posture. If you look at the angle between the ice and his shin at the three-second mark you will notice that his ankle has great flexion and that his knee is over top of the toe of his skate. This is so underrated but so important for players being able to explode into their next stride when transferring weight.
This is especially important in tight area battles when courted with pressure, the ability to move any which direction with a quick stride and cross and he’s gone. Guenther also shows through the neutral zone the use of linear crossovers to not only accelerate and gain speed in a few strides but also provide a layer of deception to his skating rather than simply projectable forward strides. Elite transition forwards tend to have a low ratio of crossover to forward strides and it is a mind game for opponents knowing a player is tracking on an arc instead of a straight line.
Moving higher, the only thing that likely does need tweaking is where his chest is situated. Although in a dynamic stance through his hips, he is out over his toes and hunched when he should be erect. This has the potential to throw off the balance built in his foundation but alas, is a repairable area.
Clip 8: Guenther’s Linear Crossovers
Guenther is in full stride on the attack, using linear crossovers as he drives towards the weak-side defender in support of his linemate carrying the puck. As he hits the blue line, Guenther transfers weight from his outside leg and drives the lane to the defender’s right. The move inside with a full head of steam attacks a soft spot in coverage and with the defender having to do a reverse cross to compensate, Guenther has the inside track while driving the middle lane. As he gets past the defender and has his hip dividing the opponent from his hands he gets fed a pass as he streaks to the net. His low, dynamic stance allows him to go in undeterred and tuck the puck upstairs.
Clip 9: Guenther’s Puck Protection
When protecting pucks, it is important to position them on your hip and separate the hands from an opponent by using your body. Guenther uses a lot of great elements to his skating, using the width of the offensive zone on this play to drive for an opportunity. While he can’t necessarily put the puck onto his forehand here to make a play he shows great balance and separates the puck while not allowing the defender to get his stick in on his hands. A quick 10-2 deviation opens up a little bit more space for him to shift around the outstretched stick and put the puck to the net.
Where Guenther Needs Improvement
While I do like a lot of what he does in possession of the puck, how he is able to play off pressure in tight ice and transition into the neutral zone, he does have the tendency of leaving pucks out in front of his body when entering the offensive zone in possession. The base is here and it will just be a matter of habitual correction to ensure he is carrying pucks in good spots when he’s thrust into the role of play driver.
Through our findings so far, we are able to clearly see Guenther has a great set of hands that allow him to create space in tight ice and move the puck to teammates with precision. He’s also been a noted goal scorer as he’s come up and that ability has made the jump to Major Junior. In his rookie season, Guenther fired 167 shots on goal with a strong preference towards wrist shots.
The thing about Guenther is that he loves to shoot the puck a lot and from anywhere on the ice. Guenther put up 26 goals in the 2019-20 regular season on 164 shots on goal, and all but four of them came from within home plate, the high-danger zone drawn from the goalmouth to the dots and to the top of the circle. Six of these goals came on registered slap shots, one of which was on his off-wing which would enable a one-time opportunity.
I was impressed with what I saw from his short game in front of the net. How he could place shots on goaltenders and the volume of his totals show a confident, non-hesitant player, but there is room for growth.
Clip 10: Guenther’s Shot
This is one of the better videos of Guenther’s shot mechanics as he comes down his off-wing. As he pushes the defender back, he shows a good rotation with his hips as he shifts his weight and swings his hands back to load the puck. As with his slap shot and wrist shot, he is able to shoot off of both feet depending on the scenario he is in. Here he opts to shoot off his right foot, which is pointed towards the opposite corner of the rink.
This will enable him to transfer weight into the shot. While I do like the head up and how he opens up his body to create a somewhat deceptive layer to his release, the issue I’ve noticed is his placement of his upper hand and his body shape. View Guenther’s stick as a lever arm with the puck as the weight and the bottom hand as the fulcrum.
Great shooters are able to generate downforce by having their top hand further out from their body so that they can violently pull back and apply down pressure on the puck. Also working against him is the fact that he isn’t dropping his upper body over the puck to help with the loading process.
Guenther does tend to get his fair share of quality attempts with the amount of quantity he puts towards the net but often the finished product looks like this. His upper hand hugging his body, which leads to inconsistency in the velocity and accuracy he is able to deliver. I do think he will be an adequate finisher as he progresses but the two variables he must work on are the biomechanics involved and picking his spots when a lower percentage chance is available to him.
I didn’t do Guenther justice by showing him on the receiving end of a deceptive maneuver earlier in this article when in fact he’s an adequate player away from the puck. Physically, he is filling into his frame but isn’t deterred from using his body along the wall to match up in puck battles. Though he isn’t likely to project as a hard-hitting player this coming season or in the future.
Guenther has a competitive edge and a tenacious spirit to his game that matches his methodical approach. He can see a play develop in front of him and is often quick to sniff out routes of opponents so he can cut off the opponent’s hands from the puck. The best part he brings to the table is the hunger to turn pucks over and regain possession for his team. The best offense is a good defense.
Clip 11: Guenther’s Stick Work
Reading the breakout and situated at the half wall in an attempt to play the pass in motion, Guenther tries to bump play to the middle hastily which ends up in a turnover to the recovering Pats forechecker. While I wouldn’t call him a juggernaut in his own end, the quick read and hunger Guenther shows here is executed perfectly. Instead of being caught flatfooted, he springs right onto the heel of the player in possession, taking his stick away just long enough to regain possession of the puck, pivot, and initiate transition.
An active stick is an important asset to have if applied in the right manner. Although not perfect, Guenther does a good job of controlling both his stick and where he wants the puck carrier to skate or move the puck. What I did notice in his game is that he does tend to take a lot of direct routes to puck carriers when picking up an assignment and hasn’t mastered the art of angling players as of yet. This leads to the inability to truly dictate the game when on defense.
Clip 12: Guenther’s Angling
Skipping to the 10-second mark of this clip where Moose Jaw has established zone pressure after a clean entry into the zone and enter Guenther. As #7 black rounds the net, Guenther does a good job of picking up his assignment, swinging low, and matching stride with the player. As play goes up the wall, instead of tightening his gap on the player he takes a fairly straight, diagonal route to where he believes he can intersect the player where he can either pin him on the wall or strip the puck. In a great deceptive move, the player sees that Guenther is loose on his check and pivots sharply, a play that Guenther cannot match. A few quick crosses and Guenther has lost his mark.
A lot of the battles in the game are lost in simple details. The aspect of space evaluation and making decisions accordingly are key to continued team success and earned trust. Although it is but a snapshot, Guenther is unrefined away from the puck as a primarily offensive player. I don’t foresee his play off the puck being projected as a detrimental element to his teams going forward.
After looking at what makes Guenther tick, what does his future look like? In baseball terms, the often-sought, but ever-elusive, five-tool player is what every team is after and Guenther is about that 4.5/5-tool player for me. I truly believe with work on building positive elements away from the puck, working on deceptive elements and technical deficiencies that he can be the top forward from this draft class.
He is able to hang his hat on the mental side of the game but it is far from the only area of his game that he excels at. I think if we were baking a cake, we have all the ingredients like milk, eggs, sugar, flour and icing present, but they are a little disproportionate. Superstar potential isn’t likely on the table for Guenther but an elite play driver who will spend over a decade on a team’s top-six is definitely on the table.