Gunner: Among Dylan Guenther's many skills, his shooting draws the most attention
While his NHL timeline is unclear, the No. 9 overall pick could fill a longstanding void
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The shooting gallery in Dylan Guenther’s basement does not rival the one in Clayton Keller’s basement. There are no fatheads of superstars Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby on the walls. There are no faux dasher boards. There are far fewer sticks and there are far fewer puck marks to signal the dedicated work that Guenther and his brother Nathan have done in that space.
The net almost looks like an art installation in its backlit alcove with a white backdrop, but if you look closely at the thick plastic that lines the walls around it, you’ll get a sense of the gallery’s necessary evolution. The plastic is there for a reason.
“So we didn't wreck the insulation behind the net,” Guenther said. “We used to have that net that had protection and netting around it, if you know what I'm talking about, but those nets aren't as good and we were going through them every three months, so we bought a better net but had to put that (plastic) behind."
There are elements of Guenther’s game that probably deserve more attention than they get. He likes to make plays as much as he likes to shoot, he has added strength to his still-growing, 6-feet-1½-inch frame, and his skating has made so many positives strides in the past six years under skating coach Britney Millar that The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler singled out several elements in his evaluation of the Team Canada summer showcase that Guenther attended earlier this month.
“This summer, we focused on maintenance and working on small refinements of movements,” said Millar, who held more intense workouts with Guenther last summer when the two were on the ice together twice a week for more than two months. “More specifically, planter flexion (toe flick), reinforcement of proper movement patterns with stride, starts (first step) and edge work specific to crossovers.
“At Dylan’s elite skating level, it has been small adjustments, covering more ice in his first step (increased knee drive) and committing more weight to one leg in his forward stride; covering more ice with each extension.”
Despite those important and related improvements, it’s Gunther’s goal scoring that draws the most attention because, well, goal scoring is cool. And Guenther has scored at a good clip of late. In the COVID-abbreviated (and disjointed) 2020-21 season, he had 19 goals in the 23 games he played between the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings (12 in 12 games), the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Sherwood Park Crusaders (three in four), and Team Canada (four in seven), which won the gold medal at the IIHF U18 World Championship in Texas in May.
Much of that goal-scoring prowess can be traced to that dimly lit dungeon of a workspace.
“I really have to credit a lot of my success to my hard work down there,” Guenther said. “Not a lot of kids are really able to have a setup like I did down there as a kid. I would spend hours and hours down there, go down like three times a day to work on stick handling, shooting pucks, and my puck skills got so much better down there.
“And now my brother and I both go down there and we shoot pucks together. We started to build some obstacles and stuff that we can stickhandle around and shoot around. We're both good shooters, and a lot of credit for that is just kind of the work and the hours that we've put in downstairs.”
While COVID cut off some contact between the Oil Kings and the Oilers last season, playing in the same venue as the NHL club has afforded Guenther plenty of in-person, note-taking opportunities while watching Edmonton stars Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But he also studies video of other players including Toronto’s Auston Matthews, who arguably owns the NHL’s best shot.
“It’s just how fast he can get a shot off and how quick he can change the angle and still put the puck in the right spot to score goals,” Guenther said. “With goal scoring, you have to be versatile unless you’re Alex Ovechkin. You have to be able to score from everywhere on the ice. Matthews does that well. He can score in tight, he can score on the power play, he can one-time pucks and get a quick release on his shots. I think that unpredictability really creates confusion for defenders. They don't really know what he's going to do and that's part of why he's able to be so successful.”
In his first full season with the Oil Kings in 2019-20, Guenther was brought along slowly, starting on the fourth line. When he asked second-year coach Brad Lauer what he needed to do to climb the depth chart and impress the staff, Lauer countered his question with another question.
“I asked him, ‘Well, what do you think you should be doing?’” Lauer said. “He goes, ‘Well, I should be getting like 12 shots a game. I'm used to getting 12 shots a game.’ I laughed and said, ‘Well, that’s not possible at this level. We had a kid here last season, Trey Fix-Wolansky, who had 37 goals and 102 points. How many shots do you think Trey might have had?’ He guessed 600-700, and I said, ‘No, he had like 380 shots, so let’s start with two shots a game and work up from there.’”
It’s not that Lauer wanted to discourage Guenther from shooting. It’s just the opposite in fact. Guenther’s nickname on the Oil Kings is Gunner.
“He's got a tremendous shot,” Lauer said. “His skating is good, too. He's got exceptional speed and he's got long, powerful strides. He's a kid that can take guys wide and he's got great vision to make plays, but what I liked about his game is that he likes to shoot the puck. A lot of these kids nowadays, they want to make plays. They want to pass the puck all the way into the net and they end up passing up good scoring opportunities to try to make that extra pass. Dylan really likes to shoot the puck first.
“It was just the process that we were concerned with, developing all those areas that would make him a more complete player, but we never wanted to take away the fact that he likes to shoot. The great thing about Dylan is that he's willing to work on whatever he needs to do to get better. He accepted his role on the fourth line, and then he earned his way up to the third line, and the second and the first.”
Coachability is a label that Guenther has earned both on and off the ice.
“If I had all Dylans I'd be living in heaven,” said Sharon Sereda, the education advisor for the Oil Kings. “While he was playing for Canada in Dallas this year, he was doing his social studies online, his last course, and he sends me a text telling me that he's getting 80s while he's telling his mother, ‘Sharon is going to be so proud of me.’
“I couldn’t believe it. He’s playing for Canada at the World Championship and he’s still sending me texts, still thinking about his social mark. He’s close to an honors student now and the truth is, he’d probably be above honors if he could ever be at school all the time. Hockey takes up so much of his time but he's still so motivated, he cares about his academics and he’s just so easy to manage.”
Guenther’s skills will be on display for Coyotes fans soon, assuming the various upcoming camps/tournaments remain open to the public with the Delta variant spiking. He’ll arrive in Arizona on Aug. 29, and he’ll likely stick around at least through training camp, if not a few games into the season.
The Coyotes haven’t had a 30-goal scorer since Radim Vrbata scored 35 in 2012, and they have only had seven players reach that plateau in the franchise’s 25-year history in the Valley. It’s far too early to say whether Guenther could be the next 30-goal guy, and it’s far too early to project when he might crack the NHL lineup.
The most likely course for Guenther next season is to return to the Oil Kings, where Lauer said he could see time at center. He’s not eligible to play in the AHL and it is unlikely the Coyotes would want to put him in an NHL environment the likes of which next season’s rebuild is going to create.
“However long they think my timeline is for when they think that I can play in the NHL, I'm going to camp this year as if I'm competing for a spot on the team,” he said. “I've kind of been preparing for that, training all summer long for that opportunity. As long as I continue to get better and get stronger then I'm going to be able to make that jump sooner than later.”
He averaged 4.25 shots on goal in this abbreviated WHL season.
Named after Bob Dylan? Or Dylan Thomas?
If Dylan Thomas then a tie in with “ The hand that signed the paper” in relation to his Coyote signing would be apt? ..... no, ok.