The Coyotes informed Dylan Guenther after the NHL All-Star break that he would be heading back to the Western Hockey League to help the Seattle Thunderbirds in their quest for a league title and the organization’s first Memorial Cup championship.
The timing of the news was surprising to Guenther’s agent, Kevin Epp, who thought the Coyotes might do it before the break, or wait until after the team’s game in Chicago, which would have been Guenther’s contractually meaningful 39th game on the active roster.
That was more thought than Guenther had given the decision. He never saw it coming.
“I didn’t even know this was a possibility heading into the season,” he said by phone on Thursday from the Seattle area. “I obviously knew what playing nine games meant, but I didn’t think that would happen and I didn’t know about this possibility. I was just trying to play my game.
“When it happened, it happened fast. I had to just pack all my stuff up and leave.”
Guenther was at the Ice Den Scottsdale last Sunday afternoon, but he was in street clothes and he did not practice with the Coyotes in their first team activity out of the break. On Tuesday, he headed to the airport for what was supposed to be a quick flight.
Instead, he faced the same commercial airline obstacles that too many of us have experienced.
“I was on Air Canada and the flight got postponed, and then I ended up having to go on Delta because another thing happened,” he said. “They lost my luggage; all my stuff. Hockey equipment, sticks and my suitcase. I was at the airport for like 13 hours total for a two-hour flight.”
Guenther knows why the Coyotes made the move. With the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline at hand, the Coyotes’ roster could be gutted and wins will be even harder to come by than they have been for the team with the league’s fourth worst points percentage (.396). GM Bill Armstrong didn’t want Guenther playing in meaningless, non-competitive games. He didn’t see the value in that for Guenther’s development.
On the flip side, Armstrong sees great value in Guenther competing in important games for Seattle. It’s a measuring stick by which the Coyotes can continue to evaluate his progress and his potential.
“If you can win two championships in a year (Guenther won the WHL title with Edmonton last year) and still know what it’s like to play in the NHL because you have played a good chunk of games, that’s a valuable year,” Armstrong said. “Once you play in the NHL, you know the standards here and suddenly you realize, ‘I’m not strong enough. I’ve got to work like an animal.'”
Guenther hears all of that, even if he wonders how much time he will have to train this summer if the Thunderbirds go all the way to the Memorial Cup final in Kamloops in early June. He just hasn’t had time to absorb his new reality.
“It’s still pretty fresh and raw so it’s tough for me to say that this is a better position for me to be in because I want to be in the NHL,” he said. “That’s not my job. I’m not looking ahead like he’s doing and planning. I’m just out there playing.
“Maybe after this experience, if I come back next season and have a good start to training camp, then I can appreciate that, but you’re a little bit bitter. It’s disappointing. You don’t want to get sent down. I was living my dream, playing in the NHL as a young kid.”
Guenther showed plenty of good things in his 33-game stint with the Coyotes, including a defensive awareness with which young players can often struggle.
“I think I improved all over the ice,” he said. “I did a good job of learning how to reevaluate my game and learning how to approach games maybe a bit differently. In juniors, I’m getting a lot of chances every single game; getting Grade-As and six or seven shots a game. It’s different up there. Maybe you don’t get a Grade-A for three or four games so you have to learn to evaluate other ways and one of those is just being trusted on the ice.
“I think I did a good job all over the ice of learning the system quick and I was able to play my game within that and also contribute offensively quite well. When you know the system and you can grasp onto it quick, it allows you to be more comfortable in those situations.”
He was also responsible away from the puck; an area of the game that often takes time for younger players to grasp.
“I think junior players get kind of a bad rap for being all offensive and seeing the game only offensively,” he said. “My coach last year, Brad Lauer, was pretty good about that. He kept me honest and he kept us all honest. We had to make sure we were playing the right way. He’d play us in the D-zone and on the penalty kill so I think playing on the penalty kill and playing in those situations in junior and then with Bear having trust in me in the preseason to put me in those situations to get more comfortable, it just helped me out.”
There were still nights when Guenther looked like he was swimming in water above his head, and that happened with greater frequency after he returned from the World Junior Championship. The games get harder as the season progresses because teams get more accustomed to playing their systems and the intensity turns up a notch with the playoffs getting close.
Guenther’s 19-year-old strength was an issue, at times, in puck and board battles.
“Getting stronger is gonna help my all-around game,” he said. “I’m gonna be faster. I’m gonna win more battles. I’m gonna shoot harder.
“It’s a tough league to score in but if I want to be a goal scorer and an offensive player in that league I have to get inside a little bit more; create more opportunities for myself around the net with sustained O-zone time.”
Tourigny said the next step in his development is largely in Guenther’s hands. His mental approach to being in Seattle is a major component in that progression.
“It will be a nightmare,” Tourigny said of the Edmonton native. “Forget he’s a hockey player. He’s a human being. He played his juniors for his childhood team (Edmonton) who he had tattooed in his heart and dreamed of playing for. He stayed at home, stayed with his parents, played for them, won a championship with them and played at the world junior championship in Edmonton.
“He comes to Arizona, realizing a dream of playing in the NHL. He had success, he had fun with the team. Now he’s going back to a totally new team. It will be tough, but I’m not saying that because I’m cruel. That’s what builds your character; the adversity. How will you react? Which kind of person are you? What kind of teammate will you be? That’s how you grow is when you go through adversity.
“That’s what I told him. ‘You should be mad.’ It would not be human if he is not but I said, ‘You cannot feel sorry for yourself. You’re still a pretty lucky man in life. You have a lot going on for you in a positive way and you need to look at the situation, get better with it and learn from it.’ If he wants to play for 15 years, there will be other rainy days. Learn from that one and get better. He’s going into a new team, a new coach, a new language, a new system, new everything. He will have to adapt. That’s all right. That’s what will make him better. Life is not built on only what’s fun. It’s built on how you react when it’s rocky.”
The Thunderbirds play their games in suburban Kent, just south of Seattle. Guenther is living with a billet family for the first time in his junior career, an experience that he said is good for pushing him outside of his comfort zone.
It’s also an adjustment going to a team with which he competed last season in the WHL finals; a team that injured him in that series and prevented him from playing for the Memorial Cup.
“I did a show yesterday and they introduced me as, ‘Dylan Guenther of the Seattle Thunderbirds,'” he said. “It just doesn’t seem right. It’s not really a team I’m too familiar with either, just because we hadn’t crossed paths with them a whole lot. We beat them last year so that’s obviously a good feeling around the dressing room.”
It also helps that Seattle has a lot of Alberta kids on its roster, including Guenther’s roommate, Colton Dach, a Blackhawks’ 2021 second-round pick with whom Guenther played at the World Junior Championship.
“We have a good opportunity this year to do something special and this is obviously a super skilled and talented team, as were the Oil Kings that I was on last year so I can kind of see some similarities there,” said Guenther, who had a goal and two assists in his first two games with Seattle this weekend; both wins.
“I don’t want to feel sorry for myself and waste any time here because that’s not gonna help. At the end of the day, I still gotta get better every single day, whether I’m in a different league or not. I’m still looking to improve every day and achieve my goal of playing in the NHL for a long time. It’s obviously disappointing and I was upset by it. I didn’t see it coming. But I’m using that to prove to everyone that I don’t belong in this league.”
Troy Stecher wants everybody to know that Trevor Zegras did not say anything about his deceased father during the players’ well publicized dust-up on Jan. 28 in Anaheim. What Zegras did say was something that crossed the line of the NHL players’ unwritten code of conduct, but it will remain off the record. Stecher is keeping it that way for very good reasons that are none of your business.
“Stuff like that happens in the league from time to time,” he said. “We’ll just leave it at that.”
Stecher has largely flown under the radar on the Coyotes’ roster this season. He has no goals and four assists, playing largely in a defensive and penalty-killing role in which 71.3 percent of his zone starts have come in the defensive zone.
“I understand my role on this team and that’s to provide stability defensively on our back end,” he said. “Other guys are going to kind of rover and maybe gamble a little bit here and there and they have the freedom to do that. I try to take a lot of pride in playing on our PK and doing a good job there.”
Like fellow defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, Stecher is playing on an expiring contract. Like fellow blue-liners Gostisbehere, Jakob Chychrun and Josh Brown, there has been speculation that he might be traded at the deadline to a team that needs defensive depth. If he does get moved, he could be playing for his fourth team in about one calendar year, but, like the other recent veteran additions to the team, he has tried to put down roots and add a steadying presence to the dressing room.
“I think all of the experiences I have had in my career have prepared me for the situation that we’re in this year as a team,” he said. “The first three years in Vancouver, I think we finished something like 27th, 29th, 28th in the league and in Detroit during the COVID year, we didn’t do very well. Even last year when I was in Detroit, we weren’t in a playoff spot and I got moved to LA.
“Just kind of being on these teams that are, in a sense, struggling or rebuilding or trying to find their identity, I’ve gone through that a lot so I feel like when I got here, I was able to try to help set a culture where you kind of learn every day and you work hard and you embrace it.”
It can take time to adjust to a new group of players, especially when you have to do it twice within about half a year.
“I got here in mid-August because I came down early to train and skate and get accustomed to the area and try to meet some of the guys,” he said. “At that time of the year, it’s obviously a little bit clicky with some of the returning guys. They have their group and you’re the new guy; the new face walking in so it’s kind of like walking on eggshells for a bit.
“But ever since the season started and we got to training camp, you’re all kind of in that grind together. And then going back to our schedule with 20 of the first 24 on the road, that’s a lot of quality time with your teammates on the road and you get to know each other on a personal level and learn about their families so it’s pretty easy to build relationships that way. With the guys in this room, it’s been awesome. We’ve had a lot of fun. I don’t think guys have come to the rink upset or dreading to come here. It’s been a great environment.”
No matter what comes next, Stecher is also grateful to have his girlfriend of seven years by his side in the Valley in a home that they bought together.
“Coming here was a lot easier than it was shortly after I lost my dad, but it’s been nice having her here for support,’ he said. “She’s a nurse, she works seven to seven and night shifts sometimes. Even when I am home and she’s not, it doesn’t feel like you’re really at home so it can be a challenge, but everybody goes through it. Other guys are leaving their kids and I don’t have any kids. Everybody has their own little problems they have to deal with but at the end of the day, it’s my job. It’s what I love to do. It’s my craft. So you come to the rink with a smile on your face.”
There is no mistaking where Michael Carcone would rather be. He wants to be in the NHL, permanently. But as long as he is working toward that goal with the Tucson Roadrunners, the AHL’s leading point producer and 2022-23 All-Star might as well enjoy the record that he is about to shatter.
After a scoring on Saturday in Abbotsford, Carcone is five points away from breaking Chris Mueller’s all-time single-season franchise record for points in a season.
It’s not as easy a feat to accomplish as it seems. Success in the AHL often leads to a recall to the NHL, and that could happen with Carcone after the March 3 trade deadline when NHL rosters expand. Matias Maccelli was on pace to break Mueller’s record last season, but injuries at the NHL level led to his recall and he never played enough AHL games to break the record.
Carcone should have enough games to shatter the record before his recall, however. It’s a fun feather that he can carry in his cap for the rest of his life, no matter what happens for the remainder of the soon-to-be, 27-year-old forward’s life.
Coyotes’ yes campaign rolls out
Coyotes president and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said that the Coyotes’ campaign to reach and inform Tempe voters ahead of the May 16 vote has already begun, but it will roll out in earnest over the next couple of weeks, with the week-long Super Bowl and Waste Management Open festivities concluding on Sunday.
Propositions 301, 302 and 303 must all pass by a majority vote for the City of Tempe to move forward with the team’s plan to build a new arena and entertainment district on the south bank of the Salt River along Rio Salado Parkway near Priest Drive.
Tempe council member Randy Keating joined the PHNX Coyotes show recently and expressed concern that the no campaign organizers appeared to be ahead of the yes campaign in their efforts and messaging, but a yes campaign spokesperson outlined the campaign’s current and planned efforts in a statement.
“Tempe Wins is educating voters about the vast economic and community benefits [that] Props 301, 302 and 303 will bring to Tempe by creating the privately funded Tempe Entertainment District. The Tempe Wins campaign has begun hosting numerous community coffees and resident gatherings, has conducted voter canvassing, and has embarked on a digital and social media outreach effort.
“Tempe Wins has and will continue to connect with voters through email, digital, mail, broadcast and more. We ask supporters and those that want to learn more to follow the campaign on social media for the latest news and upcoming events at TempeWins.com.”
The group also has Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Chychrun’s healthy scratch fuels trade speculation
Defenseman Jakob Chychrun was a healthy scratch in St. Louis on Saturday for what the team termed trade-related reasons. The news sparked speculation all over North America for the longtime trade target.
I don’t think a trade is imminent, but it’s certainly possible before Monday’s game in Nashville, or at any point over the next couple of weeks with the March 3 trade deadline fast approaching.
After a 6-5 OT loss in St. Louis on Saturday, the Coyotes have earned points in their past five games. That has led to some consternation on the part of fans who want to see the team lose as much as possible to secure the best possible odds at No. 1 overall pick Connor Bedard.
Here’s a look at how each of the seven teams in contention for the NHL’s worst overall record have fared in their past five games.
Blackhawks: 5 points
Blue Jackets: 3 points
Canadiens: 3 points
Canucks: 5 points
Coyotes: 7 points
Ducks: 5 points
Sharks: 6 points
Top photo: Dylan Guenther had a goal and an assist in his first game with the Seattle Thunderbirds on Friday; a 6-1 win against Red Deer. (Photo credit: Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)