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When the Coyotes sent Dylan Guenther back to the Western Hockey League last season to play for a league title and the Memorial Cup, he was almost spitting nails during a phone interview. He wasn’t happy with what he perceived to be a demotion, raising concerns that he might not approach the reassignment with the right mindset.
Guenther quickly dispelled those fears by scoring 13 goals and totaling 29 points in 20 regular-season games with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Then he followed with 16 goals and 28 points in 19 playoff games.
“That’s kind of the approach you have to take; just never be complacent,” he said. “Wherever I am, I’m trying to get better every day. It doesn’t make me happy when I get those calls that I’m going down. It’s not something you want to hear, but you still have to try to get better. It’s not like this is the best I’m ever going to be so wherever I am, I’m always driving.”
History repeated itself when the Coyotes assigned Guenther to the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners at the start of the 2023-24 season. Coach Steve Potvin said that Guenther showed up angry. Then he scored 10 goals and had 28 points in 29 games.
“We talk a lot here about three types of people: the victim, the information gatherer, and the executor,” Potvin said. “If Dylan’s ever a victim, it’s for a very short amount of time and then he’s like, ‘Alright, fine. What’s next? Let’s go.’ He’s just not a woe-is-me type of person, and he’s not a guy that is going to take in information and then not know how to apply it. He’s the guy that’s going to listen to the information, create a plan and then execute.
“He might have been pissed off when he got here. Sometimes, you’re gonna wear that right away when you receive information you don’t like, but he’s able to reflect on the information he’s just been given, digest it a little bit and then he gets after it. He wants it badly.”
In the long list of Guenther’s virtues — the elite shot, the skating ability, the work ethic and the ease with which he fits into a team structure — his attitude may be his best attribute.
He’ll need that attitude, all of the aforementioned virtues, and more if he is to extend this latest recall to the NHL club beyond the next few games. Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong said that Jason Zucker’s three-game suspension for hitting Florida’s Nick Cousin from behind has afforded the Coyotes the opportunity to conduct a heat check on the Roadrunners’ leading scorer.
“With the suspension, we could justify putting him in the lineup where he’s got a set place to go and work, just to replace one of our players,” Armstrong said. “He’ll end up probably going back down to Tucson.
“We’re trying to be very open and transparent with our prospects because you don’t want them hanging on every call-up, thinking this is it and putting all this pressure on themselves, but we also have a really good understanding from our development guys and our coaches down there on the work that he’s done, the extra time he’s put in the weight room, the battle drills, and all the little things he’s done. He’s had a heck of a season down there.”
The main thing that Armstrong wanted Guenther to work on in Tucson was his physical strength; a trait that naturally comes with age and the right workout regimen. When Guenther addressed reporters in the Coyotes dressing room at the Ice Den Scottsdale on Saturday, his body showed the fruits of that labor.
“I feel strong out there with guys on my back, and with my skating especially, I feel like I have a step on guys,” he said. “I’m jumping. I’m anticipating and I’m looking forward to seeing how that translates.”
The AHL schedule is demanding with 72 games and a fair amount of travel, but it still offers more windows for workouts than the NHL. Potvin said Guenther used every available moment to work on his body and game.
“We can all use the excuse that, ‘I didn’t have time to work out,’ but you have to make time and he was one of those guys that did,” Potvin said. “We were traveling from Ontario to LA and I went down to set up a shuttle and I had to walk by the gym. This was late at night. I think it was 11:30 at night and there he was in the gym, working out. At that point, you know that you can trust him and he’s trying to do the best that he can.”
The commitment was also evident in Guenther’s game.
“The light bulb went on and you could see that there was a whole other level than what he started out with — and he started the season doing pretty well anyway,” Potvin said.
“He just simplified his game. When you’re a player that has the puck a lot you try to make complex plays. But you can see now that whatever play is needed at the moment, he just does it. He is really detailed structurally, he is buying into breakout, staying a little bit higher, he is able to defend well and just be responsible. When you’re good structurally, you get the puck more, and when your best players get the puck more and they’re in the moment, it’s dangerous.”
When Guenther took the ice for practice on Saturday, he was skating on a line with center Jack McBain and wing Matias Maccelli, offering an intriguing mix of skill sets. McBain is a net-front presence who goes to the hard areas and creates space for his linemates. Maccelli is a creative playmaker and Guenther is a goal scorer.
In special teams drills, Guenther also replaced Maccelli on the first power-play unit, which is the one area where he was able to produce in his NHL stint last season.
“I just want him to play with pace,” coach André Tourigny said. “I want him to be responsible both sides of the puck and get on the forecheck, get a good stick and go at the net offensively, but that’s all stuff I know he will do. Dylan is not [the kind of player] where his game is going up and down and you don’t know where to find him on the ice. He’s a positional player. He is a really smart player.”
There has been this assumption by some in the Coyotes fan base — and even some media — that Guenther has earned his spot in the NHL because of what he did in a mere 29 games in the AHL. It’s a short-sighted view by people who are not trained in player evaluation or development. It’s a short-sighted view that loses track of the greater organizational goals for steady improvement instead of instant-gratification decisions.
“I think there’s still a process to go through with him,” Armstrong said. “Listen, to develop players is not a quick fix. It takes a long time. It’s a long road in development but we’ve liked what he’s done so let’s see what he can do for the next couple of games.”
That approach notwithstanding, Armstrong always leaves open the possibility for a player to kick in the door with his play and demand that he stay in the NHL. Guenther knows this, and that is his focus.
“I’m not really thinking about what might happen,” he said. “I’m just gonna go out there and I’m gonna play well. That’s all I can do, make it impossible for them to send me down. Absolutely, that’s the plan.”
Top photo of Dylan Guenther at the NHL Global Series in Melbourne, Australia via Getty Images
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