Not only were the Prince Albert Raiders the best team in the WHL this season, but it wasn’t particularly close: the second-place Vancouver Giants finished 11 points behind them in the standings.
Veteran experience is always handy when you’re on top in major junior, but the Raiders also had an excellent rookie in defenseman Kaiden Guhle, whom Prince Albert selected first overall in the 2017 bantam draft. The team is keeping a watchful eye over their prized freshman as they know they’re developing him for the long term. “The difference between a 16-year-old and a 20-year-old in this league is a lot bigger than the difference between a 26-year-old and a 30-year-old in the NHL,” said Raiders coach Marc Habscheid. “You have to be careful.”
This season, Prince Albert had five 19-year-old defensemen – quite the luxury for a squad that also featured the best goalie in the CHL (Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott) and a breakout star in draft-eligible right winger Brett Leason. That meant slow-playing Guhle, who just turned 17 in January and is eligible for the 2020 NHL draft. “He can play in all situations, but we have an older ‘D’ corps,” Habscheid said. “So we can put him in positions that he should be in. People get the mindset that the more you play, the better. That’s not always the case. He understands it’s a balancing act. We want to develop him and we want to win.”
For Guhle, it’s all part of the process. He’s the younger brother of Anaheim Ducks defenseman Brendan Guhle, who also played for the Raiders in his WHL days. Seeing his sibling play for Prince Albert gave Kaiden an opportunity to know the city and the fans before he arrived there himself, which was nice for the Edmonton native.
Since the WHL drafts kids a year earlier than the OHL and QMJHL, there is a one-year gap before those ‘Dub’ prospects can play in the big league. Those 15-year-olds are allowed to play a handful of games in the WHL, but otherwise they are returned to midget programs. Guhle played for Okanagan Hockey Academy’s Edmonton squad last season, where he was named the Canadian Sport School League’s top defenseman as well as freshman of the year after posting 39 points in 35 games. Going back to minor hockey after getting drafted into the WHL was no issue for Guhle. “I like it,” he said. “You get to see how the team is doing and when you get called up, you get a sense of the guys and the coaches. Then you go back to midget and wait for your turn.”
Once he went full-time with Prince Albert this season, Guhle obviously had to make adjustments thanks to the uptick in competition, but there was more to it than that: he also had to make the shift from being a minute-muncher to a guy who was getting 15 minutes a night. “He came in after playing 40 minutes a night,” Habscheid said. “You have to pace yourself when you play that much. Up here, you have to develop speeds to your game.”
Fortunately, Guhle has the athleticism to do so. Skating is his best asset, and he comes from an athletic family. His mother was a figure skater, while his dad (now a doctor) played basketball when he was younger. Mom got both Brendan and Kaiden into power skating when they were kids, and Kaiden has recently been spending his summers on a different kind of rink, playing inline roller hockey. While the skating is different (no hard stops, obviously), the blueliner loves the freedom the game affords him. “It’s 4-on-4, no offsides, no icings,” Guhle said. “So you can really be creative out there and get a lot of puck touches. It really works your vision and your hands.”
Which is bad news for WHL opponents in the coming years. A big fan of Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen, Guhle has the chance to become a stud NHLer thanks to his 6-foot-3 frame and tantalizing skills. “He’s very calm, doesn’t get rattled,” Habscheid said. “And he’s got a good presence, he has developed a nasty streak. As a high pick, he has a profile where guys are going to try to take liberties, so he needed that.”
Scouts see a puck-carrier with elite skating tools, as Guhle has balance, quickness and acceleration. And his coach sees a kid with a great mental make-up. “As good a player as he is, he’s an even better person,” Habscheid said. “He’s going to be an NHLer for a long time thanks to that attitude.”
PROJECTED TOP 10
1. Alexis Lafreniere – LW, Rimouski (QMJHL)
Super-smart and talented, he finished second in QMJHL scoring.
2. Quinton Byfield – C, Sudbury (OHL)
OHL rookie of the year brings an incredible package of size and skill.
3. Alexander Holtz – RW, Djurgarden (Swe.)
Prolific goal-scorer is deadly accurate, and he’s just starting.
4. Lucas Raymond – RW, Frolunda (Swe.)
Impressive ability to create chances and make linemates better.
5. Jamie Drysdale – D, Erie (OHL)
Fantastic skater and puck-mover led all OHL rookie blueliners in scoring.
6. Anton Lundell – C, HIFK (Fin.)
Hockey sense and battle level are two of his strongest attributes.
7. Kaiden Guhle – D, Prince Albert (WHL)
With his elite skating and transition game, he’s a perfect modern-day ‘D.’
8. Dylan Holloway – C, Okotoks (AJHL)
Wisconsin commit combines finesse, work ethic and quickness.
9. Cole Perfetti – LW, Saginaw (OHL)
Swift and skilled, he proved that he could hang with top-end players.
10. Marco Rossi – C, Ottawa (OHL)
Superbly talented Austrian import battled back from elbow injury.