With five rookies on the roster, the Montreal Canadiens are in the midst of an important transitional season, one that has put the youth movement at the forefront.
No one expects a defenceman to surpass all expectations while developing in the NHL, but in Kaiden Guhle’s case, not only has he surpassed all expectations, you could argue he deserves a little more attention in the race for the Calder Trophy.
Of course, he’s not at the point where you can include him among the top 3 front runners.
As it stands, Matty Beniers (SEA), Logan Thompson (VGK), Cole Perfetti (WPG), and Matias Maccelli (ARI) are the favourites to win the trophy.
And it’s also worth noting defencemen tend to be underestimated when it comes to Calder votes.
In 89 years, only 13 defencemen have taken home the rookie of the year honours. Jacques Laperriere is the last Canadiens defenceman to win it, dating back to 1963-64.
However, when we take a closer look at Guhle’s usage, production and overall progress, it’s clear he ranks among the best rookie defencemen in Canadiens history and has faced a baptism by fire during his first season in the NHL.
This year, Guhle ranks third among rookies in average time on ice, with over 20 minutes played per game.
What’s more, only P.K. Subban and Stephane Robidas were used with more frequency by the Canadiens during their rookie seasons.
But what truly makes his usage impressive, is that Guhle was not sheltered, or used sparingly. From the very minute he jumped on the ice at the Bell Centre, Martin St-Louis has relied on Guhle to face the opposing team’s best player in crucial situations.
It’s the type of confidence you’d rarely see given to a 20-year-old defenceman, but thanks to Guhle’s stoic approach, the rookie has tackled this difficult assignment with aplomb.
With the exception of David Savard, no other player on the roster has started his shifts in the defensive zone more often than Guhle. He also leads all Canadiens players in 5v5 time on ice, and by a healthy margin as well.
With one goal and 10 assists in 30 games, Guhle is on pace for a 30-point pro-rated season, which, in itself isn’t particularly impressive.
Most defencemen that won the Calder Trophy produced roughly 30 percent more offence than Guhle has at this point in his rookie season.
But unlike most former winners, Guhle’s usage is focused primarily on 5v5 assignments, and consequently, all 11 of his points this season have come at even strength.
What a pass by Kaiden Guhle to set up Nick Suzuki's goal. pic.twitter.com/EwiKxdhmEW
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 6, 2022
Seeing as he has no control over his ice time, it would be unfair to penalize Guhle for things he cannot control, such as power-play usage.
Only Beniers (18 points), Peretti (15 points), JJ Peterka (13), and Maccelli (12) have generated more offence at even-strength, and they’ve done so as forwards.
The only defenceman that comes remotely close to matching Guhle’s production is teammate Jordan Harris, who has 10 even-strength points this season.
Kaiden Guhle with a picture perfect set up for Juraj Slafkovsky's third goal of the year! pic.twitter.com/EqaucoIrrq
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 6, 2022
For reference, when Cale Makar and Tyler Myers won their Calder Trophies, they earned 31 even-strength points, one more than Guhle’s current scoring pace of 30 points.
If Guhle maintains his pace, he’d match the rookie production from former Canadiens greats such as Guy Lapointe and Chris Chelios, and become the most productive rookie defenceman in franchise history at even-strength.
Fans of statistics will point to Guhle’s underlying numbers, which are quite poor, to put it mildly.
And while there’s certainly something to be said about the importance of establishing positive underlying numbers to ensure sustainability, there’s also something to be said about Guhle’s most common defensive partners.
In an ideal world, neither Joel Edmundson nor David Savard would be used on an NHL team’s top pairing, but through no fault of their own, that has been the case this season, and for the most part, they’ve been paired with Guhle.
If we take a look at Guhle’s numbers away from the veteran defencemen, there’s a clear and sudden shift in underlying numbers.
With Edmundson and Savard, Guhle’s numbers tend to hover around 45 percent in terms of shot and scoring chance control.
Alongside Harris, Xhekaj, and Kovacevic, his numbers are well over 50 percent, nearing the 60 percent mark in a few categories.
It’s a very strong indication that when it comes to the underwhelming puck control numbers from the top pairing, Guhle is not the one holding his defensive partners back.
If anything, the results with various other pairings tell us it’s the other way around.
Guhle isn’t expected to earn many Calder votes, and it’s easy to understand why.
He’s facing stiff competition from fellow rookies, he isn’t padding his stats on the power play, and he hasn’t reached the point where his underlying numbers can be ignored.
But once we take a look at his production and usage in context, it is fair to say Guhle is enjoying one of the most rookie impressive seasons in franchise history.