The Montreal Canadiens are only four games into their 2022-23 season, with them earning a win/loss record of 2-2 in those games. Both wins have been at home, showing that the Habs can compete if they get their matchups. A big part of that so far this season has been the play of rookie defenseman Kaiden Guhle.
General manager (GM) Kent Hughes inherited the 6-foot-2 205-pound defender when he took over from Marc Bergevin, but Guhle fits the style of defense that Hughes is looking to build, a highly mobile defenseman who consistently keeps in motion, uses his size to separate forwards from the puck, has an excellent first pass to launch transitional play and also joins the rush in a support role as play moves up ice. The projections all had him being part of the Canadiens’ top four, able to fill a secondary role. But has he done enough to become a core piece already?
Guhle’s Current Play
Four games into the season, Guhle has been the centerpiece of the Canadiens’ top pair on the blue line, partnered with veteran NHLer David Savard. So far in the first few games of the season, Guhle has averaged 20:42 of ice time in all situations, and of that time, 17:43 has been at five on five (5v5). This places him third in average ice time on the team behind only Savard and team captain Nick Suzuki.
In those games, Guhle has looked as though he belongs, playing like a far more experienced defenseman. His advanced stats do point to a rebuilding team relying on a rookie top defender with 52.6% defensive zone starts. In that time, he has earned a 42.6% Corsi for, denoting his line gives up more shots against than for, and that also points to allowing more high-danger chances against as well. But understanding his assignments places it all in context.
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Guhle was assigned to play against top lines, which included Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Alexander Ovechkin, Dylan Larkin and Sydney Crosby. In those four games, he held those players to a grand total of one assist while scoring two assists for himself. As the season wears on, his head coach Martin St. Louis will hope that Guhle can continue to play as well as he has so far this season. Because injuries to veterans will likely be an issue over the rest of the season just as they currently are with Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson currently out of the lineup.
Canadiens’ Expectations Exceeded
Guhle has exceeded expectations so far this season. No one had expected him to arrive in his first few NHL games and play with a calm, controlled confidence that he has while being matched up against some of the best players in the league. St. Louis alluded to this fact in his post-game comments following the overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
You see his abilities and confidence. He already has a high floor, and a very high ceiling. It’s apparent he has a good foundation.– Martin St. Louis
While Guhle has exceeded expectations so far in the first few games, there will come a stretch when the adrenaline of being a rookie playing in the NHL will wear off and he will need to learn how to manage his energy and emotions, especially following a loss or even the occasional personal error on the ice. Currently, there are comparisons flying around saying he is the next Shea Weber.
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It makes sense, both are big bodies, both bring a factor of physical intimidation, and both play with a focus on their defensive responsibilities. Both defensemen are complete players, however, Weber’s shot was his main weapon while Guhle relies far more on his mobility. Also, the younger defender is a more capable transition player than Weber was.
A player that could be a better comparison is another former Montreal Canadiens first-round pick, Ryan McDonagh. So far, both are capable of logging big minutes every night and rely on strong skating skills to cover a lot of area and defend against top forwards. Guhle is showing he has a great hockey sense and can play a shutdown role, just as McDonagh currently does. While McDonagh’s offensive production is beginning to decline now that he is 33 years old, in his prime he was capable of adding 30 to 40 points per season while playing a complementary role on the top pair. This is a ceiling that could be in store for Guhle when the 20-year-old begins to enter his prime in a few years. The expectations prior to his professional debut were to become a second-pairing defender that could kill penalties, now, those expectations have been raised.
The Next Generation of Canadiens
So far, fans are seeing flashes of what the next generation of Canadiens can become. In a rebuild, player development is the key and there will be peaks and valleys in a player’s performance. But Guhle is making a case, so far, that he could be that big minute-munching defenseman that will play a physical, mobile, puck-moving style for a decade. That kind of defenseman is always a necessity for a contender, placing him in the conversation as a possible core player. Arizona Coyotes head coach, André Tourigny was asked to comment on the Canadiens player development, and he took the opportunity to point out a need for patience being necessary.
With Guhle, you waited three years and in three years, you will see that (Juraj) Slafkovsky will also be very good. If Guhle had played in the NHL right after being drafted, it is obvious he wouldn’t be as developed as he is today. It’s a process to learn your place and role. The style of play in Europe is very different so there is a lot to learn when also under pressure being the first overall pick in Montreal. He doesn’t need to be the one to make the Canadiens win this season.– André Tourigny
Part of the development plan has to include being competitive in as many games as possible. Doing so provides young players opportunities to experience key moments in a game that will need to be mastered if a team is to become a contender. Learning how to successfully defend a one-goal lead at the end of a period or a game.
Learning how to attack the offensive zone and create scoring chances to tie a game up late in the final period to force overtime is another key moment in a game. Just as what happened with 2:26 remaining in the game versus the Penguins. When the Habs were behind 2-1, St. Louis pulled his goalie and sent out six players to get the tying goal, including Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Guhle. They were successful as Suzuki won the draw, Guhle fed the puck to Jonathan Drouin and Caufield scored the goal. In overtime, St. Louis relied on the youth yet again, sending out Suzuki, Caufield and Guhle to start the period. Their efforts drew a penalty that led to another youngster, Kirby Dach, scoring the winning goal on the ensuing power play.
The future for the Canadiens has begun to take shape, and the development of players like Guhle will be important. If that causes a player to exceed original expectations of them, creating a core player to be leaned upon heavily, then that will only help the franchise when it finally enters its window as a Stanley Cup contender.