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Red Bull Hockey Academy coach Yanick Dubé had a couple of reasons to attend the 2022 NHL Draft in Montréal. Maksymilian Szuber wasn’t one of them.
Despite his German-based job, Dubé was born in Gaspé, a city at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in the Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine region of eastern Quebec. The 1994 Vancouver Canucks draft pick spends part of his offseason there so he couldn’t miss the draft in his own backyard.
Besides, Dubé didn’t want to miss the celebration at Centre Bell when EHC München forward Julian Lutz was selected. Dubé coached Lutz for several years in the academy, which feeds EHC München in the DEL, as well as EC Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian league.
The Coyotes chose Lutz in the second round (No. 43), precipitating a friendly conversation between Dubé and a pair of fellow Québécois: Coyotes coaches André Tourigny and Mario Duhamel.
A couple hours later, Dubé had an entirely different and largely unexpected conversation. With the 163rd pick in the draft (sixth round), the Coyotes selected Lutz’s München teammate, Maksymilian Szuber, a hulking defenseman whom Dubé also coached at the academy. Unlike Lutz, Szuber was not in Montréal.
“When his name came up, I took my phone right away and called him but he didn’t answer,” Dubé said. “So I called his dad (Slawomir Szuber) in Düsseldorf where the family is from. He was at the pool in the backyard and he had a beer in his hand. He was just enjoying the day; not even thinking about the draft.”
Dubé eventually got in touch with Max, who had been taking a nap after the first of two practices in Munich, and during the NHL Draft.
“The first thing he asked me was, ‘Are you joking?'” Dubé said, laughing. “Then I sent him the photo from the draft and he kind of exploded with joy.”
Szuber was not expecting to be drafted. It was a conditioned expectation.
“My first draft-eligible year, I talked to a couple of teams and my expectations and hopes were really high and then I didn’t get drafted,” he said. “My second year, I didn’t even talk to a team and then before the draft I just talked to Arizona and another team. I was just like, ‘Okay, I had too many expectations last year. I’m not going to make that mistake again.'”
Not many analysts had expectations for Szuber even after he was drafted. The odds for sixth-rounders making it in the NHL are slim. Szuber’s case made those odds seem even longer. Born in Poland, he moved to Germany as a baby. While German born players such as Leon Draisaitl, Moritz Seider and Tim Stützle have altered perception of German hockey, the list of that nation’s NHL alumni is still thin.
It may grow a little longer in the near future. Of all the late-round picks in the Bill Armstrong era, none is generating more buzz at the moment than Szuber. That’s quite a statement considering defensemen often take longer to develop than forwards. It’s also surprising given his lack of hockey pedigree.
One year after Szuber, 21, was drafted, he is expected to play for Tucson (AHL) this season. Coyotes director of player development Lee Stempniak said Szuber was the Coyotes’ best defenseman at the Rookie Faceoff in Las Vegas. Multiple sources within the Coyotes development, coaching and management staffs have labeled Szuber “ahead of schedule.”
Szuber shines on first NHL stage
“I was interested to see how he would do, going from the international sized-ice surface in Munich and playing for a team that plays super aggressive up the walls to rookie camp here and the rookie tournament,” said Coyotes development coach Kurtis Foster, who works with the defensive prospects.
“From the moment he stepped on the ice, he was just another step above in making the next play. Every time he touched a puck, the puck was going north. Whether it was under pressure or he had time, he was making a positive play going the other way, which was pretty elite to see.”
While it would not be a surprise to see Szuber see limited NHL action in a call-up situation this season, there are multiple areas of his game still in progress. Foster, Roadrunners assistant coach John Slaney, skating coach Lars Hepso and others will be working on his footwork and overall quickness to help in multiple areas including quick puck retrievals in the corners.
They’ll be teaching him to make quicker plays and think the game faster because the NHL pace and rink size do not allow as much space and time as the international surface on which he played in Munich. They’ll also be working on his strength, both to protect the puck and to battle opponents in front of the net and along the walls.
“His whole mindset has to be understanding how to be hard to play against every night,” Slaney said. “That’s not to say be physical every night, but hard to play against by not allowing people to get in front of the net, boxing guys out, being strong around the net front. He has to use his body to be physical, knock people off pucks and kill plays.”
By all accounts, Szuber is receptive; even eager to absorb the lessons.
“My mother (Joanna) taught me that you may have your own opinion, but sometimes other opinions are pretty good, too,” Szuber said, laughing. “With all of these coaches, they achieved something in their life and they are pretty good coaches; they know a lot of stuff better than me. I have my own view of how I play my game, but Slanes is an AHL Hall of Famer. I think he probably knows more than me so I just can learn so much from that kind of guy.”
It’s hard to track down poignant anecdotes from Szuber’s past because Szuber takes the same straight-forward, no-nonsense approach off the ice that he takes on it. There is no hockey history in his family. His dad took him to game as kid in Germany and Max decided that was what he wanted to do; never played another organized team sport.
Unlike the exuberant Seider, Szuber is quiet and humble; one of the most polite people to whom you’ll ever speak.
“He’s never gonna be the life of the party,” said Szuber’s Munich teammate, Ben Smith, who played seven NHL seasons in Chicago, San José, Toronto and Colorado. “In our league, you have to dress a certain number of under-23 players and he was one of them. We had an under 23 defenseman playing a regular shift on the DEL championship team. He missed a couple of games in the playoffs and we really felt it because he was one of the most important guys on our team.
“He’s a quiet guy and he’s humble, but he’s also really hungry so it doesn’t really surprise a lot of us that he’s going in and surprising people over there. He has that personality where he just kind of stays under the radar but seems to be able to perform consistently at a high level.”
Until the rookie tournament, Szuber was viewed more as a defensive defenseman who could kill penalties and effectively use his stick to break up plays off the rush, or by getting it in passing and shooting lanes. By the end of the tournament, he was leading the power play and showing yet another potential skill set.
“What separates him from his peers is his ability to read the game,” Foster said. “His ability to think the game is just on another level. He went from winning a championship in the DEL and playing well to going to World Championships where everybody wondered how he would do and then he played well again. And then he comes to rookie camp and the rookie tournament and people are wondering how he’s going to do and he played well again.
“When you get a guy like him in the sixth round, you temper expectations, but then he exceeds them, and then he exceeds them again and again. You keep waiting for that plateau and it’s just not happening.”
Roadrunners camp begins Monday in Tucson. Szuber is working his way back from a minor injury so he won’t be ready for the start of it, but he isn’t expected to miss much time.
While Tucson’s players’ roles have not been defined yet, Slaney expects Szuber to play significant minutes, play on the PK and maybe start by getting time on the second power-play unit. Where Szuber goes from there will be entirely up to him, but he’ll have a good Arizona guide to show him the way.
“I think I’m going to be living with Josh Doan, so that will be great for me,” Szuber said. “I didn’t know much about Tucson and I was scared that it might not be a good place for me, but I talked to a couple of guys like Doaner and [Michael] Kesselring and they all say it’s a great place to live so now I am really looking forward to it.
“At the same time, I’m a little scared, too. I don’t know what to expect, but I will just try my best and see how it goes.”
Top photo of Maksymilian Szuber via Isaac Torres, Arizona Coyotes
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