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Dylan Guenther will play in his eighth NHL game tonight against the Florida Panthers at Mullett Arena. On Thursday, he will face the Dallas Stars in his ninth game.
The timing works out perfectly for the Coyotes, who depart Friday on a five-game Eastern road trip against the Capitals, Sabres, Islanders, Devils and Rangers. If Guenther boards that plane with the Coyotes, he’ll be joining them on every trip for the rest of the season, as long as he is healthy. If he does not board that plane, he probably won’t play another game for the Coyotes this season.
Decision time is at hand for GM Bill Armstrong, the management staff and the coaching staff.
Per the CHL-NHL transfer agreement, junior-eligible players are permitted to play a maximum of nine NHL games with no impact on their existing, entry-level contracts with NHL teams. If Guenther plays a 10th game, however, the first year of his contract kicks in. If a player plays in 10 or more games and then his NHL team decides to return him to juniors, it can do so, but the first season of his entry-level contract is still burned, and if a player returns to juniors, he can’t return to his NHL team until his junior team’s season ends.
“When you’re keeping somebody and you’re going past the threshold and you’re burning a year, you know that they are going to have dips and valleys and peaks during the season, but you want to make sure that they can at least compete and that staying is going to help them become a better player the following year and contribute to the team,” Armstrong said. “So far, Dylan has done that, but we’re going to play it out until those last 10 seconds. We’re going to use as much time as we can before it expires. We’re going to wait it out, but so far, he has earned a spot in the lineup.”
Before Guenther plays in his eighth and ninth NHL games, here’s a deeper look at what he has accomplished so far, as well as the cases for and against keeping him in the NHL.
Through seven games and before Monday’s NHL games, Guenther was sixth among NHL rookies in points (5), and fourth in points per game (0.71), despite averaging less ice time (12:54) than the top 12 rookie points leaders. Somewhat surprisingly, Guenther, whose junior coaches called him Gunner, has just 10 shots on goal.
“I’m feeling good,” Guenther said. “At the end of the day, it’s the same game and I think when you get more comfortable off the ice on a day-to-day basis, you feel like it’s your home and your team. I think that really helps your on-ice play, your poise with the puck, not worrying about making mistakes. I think it’s important for me to play with some confidence out there and I’m getting more comfortable every game.”
Production will be a key measuring stick for a player expected to play at least a top-six role with the Coyotes for much of his career, if not a top-line role. But that’s not all that Coyotes coach André Tourigny has seen from Guenther.
“Obviously, he can shoot the puck and everybody knows that, but what I like about Guns is his 200-foot game,” Tourigny said. “He’s focused on doing the details. Sometimes, at this time of his life, the game can be fast. Sometimes, he needs to adapt, but every game, from the start of the game to the end of the game, you see a progression. You see him picking up the pace and he’s in good body position. He’s not the kind of guy who doesn’t care. When the opponent has the puck, he’s really aware and urgent defensively. I like his mindset.”
Guenther said he picked up on what it means to be a successful NHL player pretty quickly.
“A big thing that I’ve already learned is that you’re not going to make something happen every shift,” he said. “It just doesn’t work like that. The other team is too good.
“When I used to recap my game throughout my life, I’d look at how many chances I got and if I was generating offensively. Now that I’m here, I think you have to look at other aspects of the game, too. How was I along the walls? Was I getting the puck out or was our line getting hemmed in the defensive zone? It’s important for me to look at that when I’m reviewing my game because that’s just as important and it’s also tougher to create offense here. You’re not gonna get five Grade-As every single game like you were before.”
Tourigny has noted several times that Guenther does not hurt the Coyotes when he is on the ice. A rare offensive-zone penalty that led to the game-winning goal in Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers was an exception, but Tourigny did not like the call and that sort of play has not been the norm for Guenther.
“That just comes with preparation,” he said. “Before the game, you read the game notes, you’re mentally there for every practice and when get into a good routine and you’re feeling it not only on game days, I think it just kind of takes over during the game. The right habits in practice, and following the right details in practice leads to game play. So I’m just making sure I’m not cutting corners during my daily routine or anytime in practice.”
Beyond the basic statistics, a deeper look at Guenther’s performance via advanced statistics really isn’t available yet.
The Evolving Wild illustration above is an RAPM chart, but as the site’s editors note, 72 minutes with the RAPM model is not enough from which to draw conclusions. The site usually likes to wait until at least 25 games before drawing any conclusions or formulating analysis.
The case for returning Guenther to the WHL
One thing that stands out about Guenther when you see him up close is his slight build. It’s not as if he doesn’t dedicate himself in the offseason or in the gym. He does, but the combination of his still-developing body and a training window that was shortened by a knee injury sustained in last season’s WHL finals have left Guenther physically overmatched in the NHL at times.
That’s a trait that cannot be remedied this season and leads to concerns about him getting injured. There are other areas of his game that will need to adapt as well.
“As a young player, one of the biggest things that they have to find when they come into the league is the compete level and the consistency every night,” Armstrong said. “He’s got the mind and the offensive abilities, but when you’re beating goaltenders in junior from 30 feet out, you’re not going to do that in the NHL. He’s got to make some adjustments there, but overall, it’s consistency and being able to bring his A-game every night.”
While Guenther has produced points, Armstrong continually reminds analysts that the NHL gets harder as the season wears on and teams find their groove.
“Just because he’s scoring in the first 10 games doesn’t mean he’ll be scoring in the next 10,” Armstrong reiterated. “It does get harder. That’s not a lie.”
While some scouts, coaches and executives would like to see an amendment to the transfer agreement that allows players under the age of 20 to play in the AHL, plenty of them believe that there is value in returning to juniors. In Guenther’s case, he could play more minutes in all situations and build confidence. With the right team, he could also get the opportunity to compete in another postseason, and possibly get the opportunity to compete in the Memorial Cup that he missed last season due to the knee injury.
That won’t likely happen with the Oil Kings, who lost a ton of talent off last season’s roster and currently sport the WHL’s worst record (1-12-1) with only 54 games remaining in the season, but it could happen with another team.
“There’s always value in going back there; they can always learn something,” Armstrong said. “There’s a lot of trades that usually happen with those types of players that go back there. They usually end up going to one of the best teams in the league and they get a chance to compete for a championship so there is something to that.”
Beyond the challenges of the NHL, there is also the question of whether keeping Guenther in a losing environment is good for his development. That sort of environment can become contagious, as it became with Edmonton years ago.
There is also the inescapable truth that returning Guenther to the WHL would keep him under team control for an extra year. The NHL’s finances aren’t getting any easier for managers. Managing the cap is one of the greatest challenges every season, and when you look down the road at when the Coyotes want to be a playoff team again, you also have to factor contracts into that calculus. GMs love cost control and Guenther’s ceiling suggests that the longer you can keep him under cost control, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
The case for keeping Guenther in the NHL
As noted above, the Oil Kings stink this season. Guenther’s return alone isn’t going to remedy that.
As Armstrong noted, there is a good chance that Edmonton would trade Guenther to a contender to jump start a rebuild, but there is no guarantee that the situation to which Guenther is traded will be beneficial for him. He won’t be the one causing them, but there could be chemistry issues with the players or coaches and maybe his team won’t make a deep foray into the playoffs.
There is also the undeniable benefit that comes from playing against men in the NHL. You learn the intricacies of the game, you learn to adapt to the speed of the game (mental and physical), and you learn how to manage an 82-game season with all of its physical and mental challenges.
“If he can keep up at the NHL level, there’s also a value to him working out and practicing at a very high level, playing at a very high level, having these veterans around him, having the best nutrition, having the best sports science around him,” Armstrong said. “We value that, too, so we’re gonna take our time and wait until the final seconds tick off before we make the decision.”
Guenther understands what lies ahead of him this week, but there is no question where his heart lies.
“I know I’m still on a tryout,” he said. “All the guys here pretty much have an idea of where they’re gonna be. I have [two] games left here but it’s not something I’m thinking about. I think I have played well. I think I’ve generated a little bit offensively, but also done well away from the puck.
“It has been a long process, but this is where I want to be. I’m really having a lot of fun being around this team so I think it’s important for me to just go out there and earn my next shift. Nothing’s given — in the next shift or in the next game.”
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