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DRAFTPRO – TOP PROSPECT GUENTHER’S ELITE HOCKEY SENSE AND ‘DANGEROUS’ SHOT KEEPING HIM NEAR TOP OF DRAFT RANKINGS

By Jonah Fleisher

Hockey has always been a big part of Edmonton Oil Kings’ right winger Dylan Guenther’s life.

“Growing up in Edmonton, there’s really not a whole lot to do here. You’re kind of just born into hockey,” said the 18-year-old projected 2021 first-rounder. “Hockey’s all I’ve ever known. I started playing at a young age — I was five years old — and I obviously loved watching the Oilers growing up. I just fell in love with the game and kept working at it. I’ve always been a hard worker so that’s something I’ve worked hard at my whole life. I wanted to be the best at whatever I do, and that’s hockey for me.”

When he wasn’t on the ice himself, Guenther liked to watch his hometown Edmonton Oilers play. And while the talented goal-scorer was racking up accolades on his way up the junior hockey ranks, his favourite team did not see nearly as much success. The Oilers were mired in a period of futility that saw the team win the draft lottery four times in six years — including a stretch of three years in a row — from 2010 to 2015. Even in the years not picking first, they were never far from the top, owning a top-ten pick in ten of the past twelve drafts.

“The Oilers weren’t great when I was growing up, if I’m being honest,” Guenther said. “They went through a bunch of high picks that I watched like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. Watching Eberle score at the [2009] World Juniors — that’s obviously a staple hockey moment in everyone’s childhood. There weren’t any particular players that I favoured but more so just the team in general. I liked Taylor Hall when he was here — he was a really good player. I just enjoy watching the team — especially watching them win.”

Guenther himself would wind up being a first overall pick when he was drafted to the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft. That night was the culmination of a long journey that began in earnest when he made the roster of Team Alberta at the Brick Invitational Hockey Tournament as a nine-year-old.

“A big goal of mine growing up was to play on Team Alberta at the Brick,” Guenther said. “That was a tournament held in Edmonton each year and I grew up watching it. I’d go every year and it was always a great atmosphere, so I knew I wanted to be a part of that team. When I made Team Alberta, I thought to myself, ‘I can do this,’ and I just kept setting goals for myself from there and moving up to the next level.”

Guenther continue to set, and meet, his lofty goals, leading up to his selection by the Oil Kings. And aside from the obvious joy of being recognized as the best player in your draft class, the first overall pick afforded him the special opportunity to stay at home in Edmonton.

“It was a great feeling, especially being picked by my hometown team,” Guenther said. “I didn’t know it was coming. I definitely hoped for it leading up to the draft, but I didn’t have my heart set on it because I knew there was the possibility I’d have to move and continue my career elsewhere. When I heard my name called, it was just a great feeling. I’m super thankful that I get to play at home and it’s something I’ll never take for granted. That was an unreal steppingstone in my career and something that I’ll never forget.”

The Oil Kings wouldn’t go on to regret their decision. After a brief cup of coffee playing eight games — and scoring four points (3-1-4) — in 2018-19, Guenther vindicated the team’s choice with an outstanding rookie season that concluded with the skilled forward hoisting the Jim Piggot Trophy as the WHL Rookie of the Year. Beginning the year at only 16 years old, Guenther finished second to 2019 Blackhawks fourth-round selection Michael Teplý in rookie scoring with 59 points (26-33-59) in 58 games. His exceptional play also set new Oil Kings rookie records for goals and points.

Guenther’s success didn’t come without a lot of hard work, of course. His countless hours of practice did not go unnoticed by his teammates, nor by the Oil Kings’ brass.

“Dylan’s a very mature kid for his age,” said Oil Kings general manager Kirt Hill. “He’s already a pro with all of the extra time and work he puts in, whether that be after practice, during practice, or even away from the rink. He knows what it’s going to take to make it to the next level, and he’s got a strong commitment and love for the game. He’s a little more laid back, but very respectful and very mature. His temperament is excellent for him to be able to come in here, put all the pressure aside of being the first overall pick in his hometown, and perform night in and night out.”

DraftPro projects Guenther as a first line winger, likely needing one more year of development before making the jump to the NHL. Our NHL comparable for Guenther is Kyle Connor, but Guenther says he tries to emulate Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos.

“I think a guy I like to model my game after would be like Scheifele or Stamkos,” he said. “They’re both really good players who can play at both ends of the rink. They can make plays and score goals too, so they’re two guys I try to play like.”

Guenther came in fifth in DraftPro’s rankings. As written in our draft guide, his biggest strengths are his versatility, offensive acumen, vision, shot, intelligence, and sturdy frame to build on. He is a “skilled right shot power winger who also plays center, a real swiss army knife player… An explosive skater with quick first steps, seamless transitions… excellent edge work and quick lateral movements… [Has] skilled hands with the ability to control the puck at top speed. Dual threat playmaker and finisher, [who] possesses a lethal one-timer, dangerous off the rush with a quick release snapshot or by driving to the net. His shot is a weapon — the release and accuracy are outstanding and only the velocity could use work. Vision is very strong. He impresses with how hard he works… finishes his checks when needed and doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas. Processes the play quickly and makes smart decisions. Defensively he packs a punch as well due to his high motor. He really loves to battle and compete. Excellent character who brings positive energy and leads by example. Versatile player that can play up of down the lineup effectively due to his high motor and attention to detail. A high-floor, high-ceiling prospect.”

“As far as my on-ice contributions go, I’d say my [biggest strength] is my hockey IQ and ability to create space for both myself and my linemates,” Guenther said. “That really helps us to make plays and score goals. I’ve gotten a lot faster over the years and skating was something I was looking to improve on. As I’ve improved on that, I’ve been able to use my hockey sense to create that time and space for myself to make plays and score goals. That’s been big for me — just being in the right spots at the right time.”

However, there are obviously still some areas of his game that Guenther needs to work on, namely his strength, stride, and puck management in the defensive zone.

“At times [Guenther] has a tendency to straighten up and his stride becomes short,” reads the DraftPro guide. “[He] will need to clean up zone exits as he commits a few turnovers with poor decisions. Physically engages in board battles but will still need to get stronger.”

“Strength is a big [area for improvement] for me,” Guenther acknowledged. “Getting stronger will help all aspects of my game, especially play along the walls — just helping me be more comfortable when I get the puck in those situations. Another spot I can improve in is my faceoffs. I think I’m a versatile player who can play in any situation — being good in the faceoff circle is super important so that’s something that I really want to work on.”

General manager Kirt Hill agrees with that assessment, believing that most of the improvement required in Guenther’s game, namely his strength, will come with age.

“I think the biggest area for growth in his game is just his physical maturity,” said Hill. “He’s still got a lot of room to grow, getting stronger and adding more power to his game. As he gets older and becomes more of a young man, he’s going to grow not only as a person, but physically as well. That’s one of the areas where, as that growth comes, a lot of other areas of his game are going to improve as well.”

With a vital season of improvement ahead, Guenther couldn’t let the COVID-19 lockdowns halt his progress. Working within the regulations and guidelines, he made sure to put in the work on the ice, and it paid off. Going into this season, Guenther had added nearly 20 pounds, seemingly without taking a hit to his agility or acceleration.

“It’s about always being ready and versatile,” the talented forward said. “We’ve learned to expect the unexpected and always be on our toes and in shape as the season could’ve started at any point. That was my mentality and even the rinks closed here so I had to find ways to get better away from the ice. I think I did a good job of that and we could be going through something similar this year with lockdowns, so I just need to continue to battle through the adversity and get better.”

Guenther made sure to always be ready, and even with the WHL shut down he found a way to get back on the ice. He suited up in four games for the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League while waiting for the Oil Kings’ training camp to start. And when the WHL finally did start back up again, Guenther was more ready than ever.

Guenther began the 2020-21 season red hot, scoring an astounding 15 points in his first six games. When all was said and done, he had racked up 24 points (12-12-24) in only 12 games — the highest points per game mark on the club — before leaving for Team Canada’s Under-18 Championship camp.

Guenther didn’t only lead the team in scoring, though. The skilled youngster had been wearing the ‘A’ as an alternate captain, and the Oil Kings highly valued the leadership and dedication he had exhibited.

“He does speak up in the room, but he is a little bit quieter and tends to lead by example more,” said Hill. “His play on the ice speaks for itself — just his ability to score goals and everything else he brings to our group each shift. He’s a threat every time he’s on the ice, and a big part of our team, obviously, playing on our top line with [2020 first-rounder] Jake Neighbours and a couple of 20-year-olds over the last few years.

“It speaks to his commitment both to the team and to the game. Everything that our staff preaches and what we want to be in Edmonton — how we handle ourselves around the rink, putting in extra work, practicing like a pro every day, and showing up for each game — Dylan is the epitome of that. Just from the example he sets for the younger guys — we had 13 rookies on our team this year — he’s a guy that a lot of them look up to and he really sets the standard and leads by example in our group.”

“It’s nice to get recognized in a leadership role,” Guenther said. “A lot of the time when you have good teams like that, letters can go to a lot of different guys. To have the opportunity to be a leader on that team is definitely an honour and I wear the ‘A’ with pride.”

Going to the U18 Championships with Team Canada, Guenther kept the ‘A’ on his jersey. And while he wasn’t as aggressive playing alongside similarly talented players, it was his small details and habits that impressed.

“Any time you get to represent your country it’s obviously a huge honor,” Hill said of Guenther’s time at the U18’s. “That was an opportunity that came up for Dylan this year, and obviously it was an important one that we wanted him to take part in. For any player’s development, to be able to represent your country against the elite players in your age category and see where you stack up against them is a huge opportunity. I thought he did a tremendous job going over to Dallas and representing not only Canada, but also the Oil Kings organization and himself for the upcoming draft.”

Notwithstanding his individual production, Guenther helped his country win gold. And as a player suiting up for your country on the international stage, that’s all you can ask for.

“It’s a huge honour,” Guenther said. “You wear the [jersey] with pride. It’s everyone’s childhood dream to play for Team Canada and tournaments like that are ones that you watch growing up and you hope that one day you’ll be able to represent your country. It truly is an honour and everything is done so professionally in Hockey Canada. To win gold in a tournament like that is awesome. It was a great feeling — I’m super happy and proud of the boys.”

Now, with no games left to play this season, the draft is the next thing up for Guenther.

“No, not really,” Guenther responded when asked if he’s been affected by pressure regarding the draft. “My focus is just to keep building off of where I left off. I thought I had a good rookie season — the team as a whole did. Our team focus was just to go into the next year and keep building on where we left off. I have tried to use that on a personal level as well. I am going to continue to do that and take things one day at a time. Every day, I just need to try to get better and stronger.”

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