The final Coyotes prospect report of the season will be a condensed one. Only four prospects are still active in their respective leagues’ postseasons, we just wrote about one of those guys, and I didn’t want to bug coaches or players during their postseason runs.
That approach afforded me the opportunity to talk to a member of the Coyotes development staff who hasn’t received much attention. Former Blackhawks, Flames and Avalanche center Jeff Shantz joined the development staff this season. Better yet, he just paid visits to the two prospects whom we are focusing on in this report: Seattle Thunderbirds forward Dylan Guenther and Winnipeg Ice center Conor Geekie.
Both players are competing in the Western Hockey League semifinals. Geekie’s Ice took a 2-0 series lead on Saskatoon in the Eastern Conference Final, while Guenther’s Thunderbirds took a 2-0 lead on Kamloops in the Western Conference Final, putting them on a collision course for the WHL championship series and a berth in the Memorial Cup in Kamloops from May 26 to June 4.
Before we get to them, a little background on Shantz, who does most of his work with forward prospects. In addition to Guenther and Geekie, he has spent time this season with Logan Cooley, Miko Matikka, Julian Lutz and Josh Doan, among others.
Shantz retired in 2011 after playing his final eight seasons in European leagues with SC Langnau, EHC Biel-Bienne and HC Fribourg-Gottéron of the Swiss National League; Adler Mannheim in the DEL; and EC-KAC in Austria’s EBEL.
“I had a couple of irons in the fire from a coaching perspective, but my oldest son was in grade nine when we moved back here and he had been in eight different schools in nine years, so I was like, ‘Well, that’s not gonna work,'” Shantz said. “I ended up doing a sales job for five years, but there’s an academy out in Calgary here where I live that I had worked at as a coach for five years and actually coached [Coyotes director of amateur scouting] Darryl Plandowski’s youngest son.
“[Coyotes associate director of amateur scouting] Ryan Jankowski was actually the assistant equipment manager for that world junior team that I was on so I’ve known Ryan since that time. Darryl reached out to me about this position last summer.”
Shantz does a fair amount of traveling on weekends when prospects are generally playing games, but his work won’t end when the postseasons are complete.
“We’ll help prepare all the plans for development camp and help out at camp, but right now, we’re also going through a full debrief on each prospect, how their year went, and making reports for the brass. We help a little bit on the scouting side, too, especially this time of year. Our scouting staff will say, ‘Hey, can you look at this guy and this guy because they’re in the upcoming draft?’ We give our perspective.
“With the unrestricted college free agents at the end of their season, we were doing a little bit of work there as well. We’d watch three, four, five games of these players that they’re interested in and then put together a report. I’m hoping that Winnipeg and Seattle get through this next round, because then there’ll be another opportunity to see both of those teams play and then obviously both our players play as well.”
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “You don’t want to get sent down. I was living my dream, playing in the NHL as a young kid.”
At the same time, Guenther vowed not to mope around his brief stay with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds.
“I don’t want to feel sorry for myself and waste any time here because that’s not gonna help,” the ninth overall pick in 2021 said. “At the end of the day, I still gotta get better every single day, whether I’m in a different league or not. I’m still looking to improve every day and achieve my goal of playing in the NHL for a long time. It’s obviously disappointing and I was upset by it. I didn’t see it coming. But I’m using that to prove to everyone that I don’t belong in this league.”
The proof is in the production. Through the first two rounds of the playoffs — both Seattle four-game sweeps — Guenther is leading the WHL playoff with 11 goals. Overall, he has 17 points in those nine games.
“I have a bit of an advantage with Dylan because I actually coached him in the Canada Games when he was 15,” Shantz said. “The thing about Dylan that I love is exactly what you wrote about. He is very mature for his age. The hard part from our perspective as development coaches is to get the kids to the point where they don’t just tell you what they think you want to hear. They actually tell you the truth, whether it’s good or bad or indifferent. When they can tell you the truth, then you can work off that and get better.
“I saw him pretty soon after he was sent back and he was still upset about it. The nice thing and the mature thing about him is when I went into Seattle and I talked to his coaches, his coaches didn’t know any of this. When he showed up in the dressing room, he was one of the guys. They said he was a way grittier and way better player without the puck than what they thought before. There was zero ego and there were no issues or problems with him fitting in with the players. To me, that speaks a ton to his character.”
Guenther has been productive since arriving in Seattle, but there was an adjustment from the NHL to the WHL, where Guenther had 13 goals and 29 points in 20 regular season games.
“When he first arrived, he was playing the game that he had to play in the NHL,” Shantz said. “When he’s in the NHL, he’s got to move pucks faster because the game is quicker. You’ve got to know what you’re going to do and the guys around you are ready for that.
“When you’re in Junior, he has more time and space, he can hold on to pucks for longer, and when he does get the puck, guys aren’t ready if you make plays a little bit too fast, especially if you’re playing at the speed of the NHL. To me, that was the biggest adjustment for him was just to slow his brain down and not expect it to be what it was in the NHL. You have a little bit more time and space and then away you go.”
Guenther was billed as a goal scorer and he has clearly been building that reputation in his 29 games with Seattle.
“The most impressive thing I find is that he gets to the right spot to shoot the puck and is ready,” Shantz said. “Now that his teammates are used to that, he’s got guys now that are finding them. He’s got such a high-level shot and an ability to get it off, but, he does a lot of work away from the puck and he plays really well in his own end. He’s just playing the right way. It’s not just the offensive stuff, it’s tracking hard to break up plays, and then when he gets into the situation where he can shoot the puck, he’s got a world-class shot.”
Coyotes prospect Conor Geekie
The relationship between Conor Geekie and Winnipeg coach James Patrick has not always been ideal in their two seasons together. Geekie is used to dominating opponents with his size and skill, but he’s also accustomed to doing what he wants on offense, which sometimes leads to turnovers, cheating, unnecessary risks and defensive lapses.
Patrick, a Winnipeg native, played 20 seasons in the NHL. He knows precisely what is required to succeed at that level, and that knowledge has been a driving force in his tough love with Geekie.
“There’s times where I feel he can play better, but I can say that about all of our players,” Patrick said earlier this season. “I have high expectations for him and there have been periods where I think he is coming close to that.”
Geekie wasn’t logging as much ice time as you’d expect from a 2022 first-round draft pick (No. 11) earlier this season. He has even been relegated to the second power play unit on a team that finished with a league-high 115 points. Part of Geekie’s challenge has been to learn how to use his bigger frame, a process that GM Bill Armstrong has cautioned will take longer than smaller prospects; likening Geekie’s development to another player that Armstrong drafted: Tage Thompson.
Geekie had a good season by WHL standards with 35 goals and 77 points in 66 games, but he has ramped it up a notch with six goals and 14 points in 11 playoff games.
“He’s definitely a more of a 200-foot player who is stopping on pucks in his own end and as a centerman, he’s staying between the puck and his net when he’s in his own end, especially when there’s not full control,” Shantz said. “He’s not cheating as much. When you do a really good job of that as a centerman, you don’t have to play defense.
“Young players want to go on offense. They want to go play at the other end so they cheat and then pucks turn over and they have to play in their own end for half of their shift or longer because of it. That was a big thing with Conor this year. In the last few games, he’s gotten rewarded for playing the right way from a points perspective. He’s dug in and played a really good playoff style of hockey.”
Shantz has worked with Geekie on a variety of game aspects this season, including moving his feet continually, using his size to be physical consistently, and faceoffs.
“Little guys have an advantage on faceoffs because they’re closer to the ice and they can get over the dot a little bit easier,” Shantz said. “But big guys, if you can get a good little bit of a knee bend and get kind of horizontal with your upper body, you take that space and make it difficult for the other guy to get in over the dot because you’re so big.
“The other thing for big guys is they are generally heavier. Being able to use that weight as leverage on your stick blade will make him stronger than a little guy, regardless of what the technique is. So I’m just trying to get him to learn how to use his body a little bit more effectively.”
Shantz loves the total potential package that Geekie hints at one day becoming.
“For a big guy, he’s got good control of his edges and he’s really slippery,” Shantz said. “He can get into a tight area and get himself out of a tight area. And then he’s just big and powerful. As he gets a little older and adds a little bit more strength, he’s just going to get better at that power game. Add that to his hockey sense, his playmaking ability and his speed for a big man and you get excited.
“At least once or twice a game you go, ‘That’s exactly what we’re really excited about!’ It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
Coyotes prospect notes
Defenseman Maksymilian Szuber and forward Julian Lutz celebrated a DEL championship with Red Bull Munich by defeating ERC Ingolstadt in the championship series, 4-1. The Coyotes selected both players in the 2022 NHL Draft; Lutz in the second round (No. 43) and Szuber in the sixth round (No. 163). It was the fourth DEL title for Red Bull Munich since the league was formed in 1994.
Logan Cooley still has not made a decision on whether he will turn pro with the Coyotes or return to Minnesota for a second collegiate season. The Coyotes selected Cooley with the third overall pick in 2022.
The Waterloo Black Hawks and Coyotes prospect Miko Matikka dropped the first game of their USHL quarterfinal series with Lincoln on Friday, but evened the series on Saturday. The Coyotes selected Matikka in the third round of the 2021 draft (No. 67).