On the eve of the 2021 draft, the Arizona Coyotes weren't even supposed to be picking in the first round. The 11th overall selection had been forfeited in the previous administration's combine workout scandal and now new GM Bill Armstrong was poised to head into his first shindig with a significant disadvantage.
But Armstrong swung a big deal with Vancouver that sent captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson to the Canucks in a package trade that, among other assets, landed Arizona the ninth pick overall in the draft. And just to complete the Coyotes' reversal of fortunes, Arizona managed to land right winger Dylan Guenther – a player projected to go as high as third or fourth overall – with that No. 9 selection.
This week, Guenther signed his entry-level deal with the Coyotes, much to Arizona's delight.
“Dylan is an extremely skilled and smart player with a great work ethic," Armstrong said. "We are confident that he will become a very good NHL player and look forward to watching his development this season.”
Now, it's fair to assume that Guenther is poised to return to the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings for the 2021-22 campaign – but what if he doesn't? What if, instead, Guenther earns a spot with the Coyotes and goes straight to the NHL?
Personally, I think there's a chance it happens. Guenther already has decent size at 6-foot-1, 181 pounds and with a long summer of training, it's very possible he has added some more muscle to that frame.
In terms of his skill set, Guenther is exactly what the Coyotes need more of right now. Arizona has a paucity of skilled wingers outside of Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel and losing Conor Garland in the Ekman-Larsson deal obviously made that situation worse. The Coyotes have plenty of burly wingers, plenty of tough-to-play-against wingers, but few who can rip the puck and generate offense the way Guenther can, even at his young age.
If he were to make the roster, the Oil Kings star would have to snatch a spot away from an older player and surpass any number of older prospects such as Matias Maccelli, Jan Jenik and Barrett Hayton. But if Guenther has a lights-out camp and proves he belongs, why wouldn't the Coyotes give him a chance?
Because he's so young and because the Coyotes are likely to take a step back in the standings this season (the team has two first-rounders and five second-rounders in the 2022 draft, so you can see the strategy), Guenther doesn't have to be forced into an 82-game schedule, either. Arizona could easily loan him out to Canada for the world juniors in December, which take place in Edmonton again this year. That's an experience Guenther would benefit from tremendously after cutting his teeth at the world under-18s, where he won gold and played a bit of a different role for a stacked Canadian squad this past season.
Of course, the most obvious path for 2021-22 is for Guenther to return to the Oil Kings full-time, where he can develop on an excellent team that also features Detroit first-rounder Sebastian Cossa in net and St. Louis Blues first-rounder Jake Neighbours up front, most likely on Guenther's line again.
Plus, Guenther is coming off a shortened WHL season where he played just 12 games before leaving for the world under-18s. He did have the benefit of getting into a handful of contests with Sherwood Park of the Alberta Jr. A League while he waited for the WHL to return to action, but it was still a light workload.
On the other hand, I was talking to an NHL scout the other day about OHLers, who missed all of last season and he wondered how much more physically prepared they will be this year since they had so much time to train off the ice. Guenther would get a bit of that benefit, too.
We have seen young players go straight to the NHL who weren't ready (heck, one just got offer-sheeted by Carolina) a number of times and Arizona can't afford to trip up Guenther's development. This is a top-shelf prospect with great offensive upside and the maturity to become a solid top-sixer in the NHL some day. Whether that day comes sooner or later is up to him and the Coyotes. But he'll be an intriguing player to watch come training camp.