Don’t Sleep On Noel Gunler

 

The annual Hlinka-Gretzky Cup has recently concluded, and like every year, the world of hockey prospects is up to the brim with recency bias. Players like Cole Perfetti and Hendrix Lapierre, who performed incredibly well, are flying up draft boards while those who struggled or didn’t attend are overshadowed. Noel Gunler, who was ineligible for the tournament, falls in the latter category. It’s assumed that Gunler would have been team Sweden’s top offensive threat. As it was, Sweden’s top scorers were Daniel Ljungman and William Eklund, who performed unwhelmingly in the SuperElit last season. Gunler had 46 points last season— over six and a half times Ljungman’s total. In fairness to William Eklund, a 2021 eligible, both Gunler and Ljungman are several months older, but the point is that Noel Gunler is currently considerably better than anyone that represented Sweden at the Hlinka as of right now. Gunler is the lesser-known of the three high-level Swedish wingers eligible in 2020, a group filled out by Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. Unlike Gunler, who was born in late 2001, both Raymond and Holtz were eligible for Sweden’s Hlinka roster, but they were chosen to represent Sweden’s under-20 team at the World Junior Summer Showcase instead. Gunler wouldn’t have been out of place on that team as well, but the same apparent attitude issues that kept him off Team Sweden at the U18s in March are thought to have removed him from consideration for the under-20 team.

Looking at pure statistical resumes, there’s a strong argument to be made that Gunler was more deserving of a U20 selection than either of Raymond and Holtz. Gunler played 15 professional games in the Swedish Hockey League, tallying five points against men. In comparison, Raymond played five fewer games with three fewer points, and Alex Holtz got into just three pro contests and continues to await his first official professional point (he scored twice in his first preseason game of the year).
Since it’s come up several times already, let’s talk about Gunler’s attitude. First off, it’s important to note that these concerns are nothing more than pure speculation at this point. To my knowledge, no credible analyst has outright commented on the Swede’s attitude— the discussion is more a product of people making assumptions based on what we think we know, and while assumptions aren’t anywhere near reliable, it’s difficult to deny that something seems to be up.

There are two knocks against Gunler’s off-ice antics. First of all, we have his dumbfounding exclusion from the Swedish roster at the U18s last March that defies hockey-related logic. A scenario where Gunler isn’t better than any of the players that did make the team does not exist. Secondly, we have the incident that took place in the SuperElit this season where Gunler pushed over a linesman in a scrum, resulting in a five game suspension. Stuff happens in the heat of the moment, but it’s pretty clear than Gunler has a temper. That isn’t necessarily a negative though, as long as Gunler learns to better control his emotions. Teams like having feisty players in their lineup, especially when they also have the offensive talent of Gunler. The Swede just has to find the line between aggressiveness and legitimate anger problems.
Issues aside, Gunler is a gifted scorer and a lethal offensive threat. With 27 goals in 31 contests, he was just four pucks short of the goal-per-game mark. On top of that, he added 19 assists for 46 points, which is exceptional production for a draft-minus-one player. Since 2004, only three players have beat that statline prior to their draft seasons: Lias Andersson (1.59 PTS/GP), William Nylander (1.59), and Jesper Boqvist (1.53).
A pure goalscorer, the winger’s top offensive weapon is his shot. Gunner’s deceiving quick release generates devastating power on his shot, and he has the pinpoint accuracy to match. The power on Gunler’s shot comes from two things: weight transfer and stick flexion. Weight transfer is quite simple: it’s the transfer of weight from the back leg to the front foot during the shooting motion. Gunler’s transfer is explosive, he shifts his weight forwards extremely quickly, adding explosive power to his shot.

This goal is a solid demonstration of that. He receives the pass, stickhandles, loads up on his back foot, and then shifts his momentum towards the goal in one smooth yet powerful motion. Stick flexion is a similarly simple concept — it’s the flexing or bending of the stick that propels the puck forward in a whip-like motion— but the execution comes down to two things. This is the most important element to a powerful shot— without it, it’s essentially impossible to get any kind of pace on a shot without the slow, sweeping release that we see a lot from younger kids in minor hockey.


Alex Ovechkin, the owner of one of the most devastating shots hockey has ever seen, he demonstrates this concept extremely well. That’s where the majority of his power is coming from. Like the Russian legend, Noel Gunler exhibits this trait quite well. Let’s revisit the goal we looked at earlier again, since it’s an excellent angle to take a look at this. Here’s a screencap from that clip, showing Gunler just before he releases the puck.


First of all, Gunler achieves excellent extension of his hands from his body. As we can see, there’s a significant amount of space between his stick and his torso. To create the flex, Gunler is pulling his top hand back towards him while pushing his bottom hand away from his body. As Gunler releases, his stick whips forward, striking the puck towards the net. He follows through with authority too, completing his explosive motion by pointing his stick where he wants the puck to go.

A common comparison for Gunler’s shooting ability is Elias Pettersson, who scored at a 32 goal pace for the Canucks this season. The match isn’t perfect, but there are undoubtedly some parallels: the sweeping release, push-pull action of the hands generating the flex and power, and explosive weight transfer.

These are the fundamentals of a powerful shot, and Gunler executes them to near perfection. With a 6’1”, 176 pound frame and his earlier birthdate, I suspect Gunler isn’t far from physically mature but that shot is only going to become even more lethal as he continues fills out and build strength. Now that we have a handle on his mechanics, let’s look at a few more examples of Gunler putting that shot to use. The Swede is an extremely versatile scorer, he’s shown at the SuperElit level that he is capable of filling the net in just about any fashion. His favourite spot to operate is the left circle much like a right-handed Ovechkin, but he’s able to unleash the puck from anywhere, whether it be right around the crease in tight or off the rush from a little further out. This adaptability is largely in part to the quickness of his release— he’s able to get shots off in tight or in even crowded areas while facing heavy defensive pressure. Gunler’s at his most dangerous when he has his feet set, but he’s very capable as a shooter while moving, a valuable skill to possess in rush scenarios. He seems to be more comfortable shooting off the glide rather than a true “in-stride” shot off one foot, but he’s can do both.

Here’s an example of that gliding snipe that he has in his arsenal. By using this kind of shot rather than the in-stride option, he’s able to really keep that accentuated weight transfer going. Notice how he starts on two legs and shifts the entirety of his weight onto that front leg as he releases the puck, with his back leg fully extended behind him. Gunler uses his feet very well to enable his scoring abilities, utilizing his mobility to put himself in dangerous areas with the puck. Some people perceive Gunler’s skating to be a weakness, which I emphatically disagree with. We’ll get into more detail about his actual stride later, but right now I just want to touch on how his skating pertains to the scoring element of his game.
First of all, he’s able to transition the puck from low-danger zones to the slot area. Even for a player as threatening from the flanks as Gunler, there’s obvious value in bringing the puck to closer, more central areas before shooting. This goal might be the most impressive of any you’ll see in this breakdown. As usual, Gunler is working off the left side—his off-wing— on the powerplay. One of the penalty killers is defending the point, leaving space open in the middle.

Gunler recognizes this weakness and takes advantage, cutting inside and unleashing a devastating snipe into the top left corner. It’s an awkward shot, taken off both feet while turning towards the net, but Gunler still manages exceptional power and accuracy on the attempt. This versatility— the ability to get a hard, accurate shot on goal no matter the circumstances— is a big part of what makes Gunler such a formidable scorer at the SuperElit— and even SHL— level, and it’s why his game should translate well against NHL opponents. That was how he brings the puck into dangerous areas, but another important element of Gunler’s mobility as it pertains to his scoring is how he’s able to transition *himself* into scoring positions. Even a player with Gunler’s adaptability needs to have some level of preparedness to shoot. Gunler has the ability to receive the puck in a non-scoring position and quickly transition into a shooting posture. Here’s an example:

When the pass is made, Gunler is in the high slot facing perpendicular from the net. By accelerating quickly with a series of backwards crossovers, he’s able to about where a ringette line would be on this ice,  by the time he even receives the puck. By this point, he’s facing the net and has the puck in a shooting position on his forehand for a quick finish. It doesn’t seem like much, but the transition and smooth footwork here is what allows him to take advantage of the defensive lapse that left him open in the first place. That’s what I’m talking about when I say his skating enables his goalscoring, it’s small often subtle plays that put him in more dangerous scoring positions than he would find himself in otherwise.

I could go on about Gunler’s goalscoring forever, but we should dedicate some time to the rest of his profile as well. And since we’re already on the topic, let’s take a look at his overall skating ability. There’s a notion that Gunler’s skating is a weakness of his. I’m not sure where it began, but that idea is either misinformed or miscommunicated. He may not be quite as good of a skater as Lucas Raymond or Alex Holtz, his two Swedish counterparts who are both exceptionally mobile, but Gunler gets around the ice very well.

He goes end-to-end here and scores a crazy goal from the goal line. We can see him accelerating through the use of crossovers as he comes out of his own corner before straightening out into a nice wide, long stride between the bluelines. He gets good knee bend, and although it seems like he could get a little more power out of the extension of the pushing leg, his stride doesn’t have any noticeable hitches and is actually quite technically sound. As he adds leg strength, he’ll only become faster. His first step and acceleration might not be quite as well-regarded as his top speed, but he gets going fairly well. Notice how Gunler (#8) accelerates up ice after making the touch pass here.

I also like this clip as a demonstration of Gunler’s ability to play off the puck in transition. As a sniper, Gunler creates offence through a mix of play on and off the puck. In the offensive zone, he might hold onto the puck and create off the wall, but he’s even more likely to settle back into his “spot” around the faceoff circle and let his teammates do the majority of the work cycling the puck around, waiting for a shooting opportunity. In transition, Gunler is more than capable of carrying the puck into the zone himself, and will do so often, but he’s also content to take a secondary role on the entry and look for open space in the offensive zone. The play above is a perfect example of him taking that secondary position in transition. He starts the exit with an intelligent touch pass that lets his centre skate onto the puck, and then he skates hard to get into the play, finds some space, and just misses a backdoor opportunity. He only touches the puck twice, but his play away from the puck nearly creates a goal.
Gunler’s a scorer, no doubt about it, but his ability to create as a playmaker is very impressive as well. For a player with Gunler’s scoring prowess, the key to making things happen as a distributor is to utilize the threat of the shot to open up lanes.

By entering the zone on the right flank with the puck loaded on his forehand, Gunler presents the shooting threat. The near-side defender commits to Gunler, leaving the middle open, which forces the far defender to shift inside, which is what ultimately leaves the goalscorer open backdoor. This play is also an example of Gunler playing near the puck in transition, he’s possessing the puck on the zone entry.
Here’s another look at Gunler’s playmaking. I love this play as it shows real vision and intelligence.

He receives the puck behind him and brings it forward in a sweeping motion, very similar to how a shot would look. Instead, he sends a perfect pass into the slot for his teammate to finish. This is a split-second, one-touch play, but Gunler has the vision and awareness to recognize his teammate in the slot and deliver a perfect pass (if you look carefully, you can see that the puck basically grazes the defender’s skate as it passes).
Gunler will always be most effective as a goalscorer, but he’s a highly versatile offensive threat capable of attacking in a multitude of ways. Even as a pure scorer, he’s about as malleable of an attacker as you’ll find. The Swede is a controlling threat in the offensive zone, devastating off the rush, and despite not being a huge burner, he’s quick and intelligent enough to create breakaway situations. He can play at all tempos— fast, slow, or whatever’s in between, and reacts and overcomes whatever challenges the defence presents.
There’s nothing more valuable than goals in the modern game, and players this good at producing them come around very rarely. Gunler is a rare mold of scorer— the type that can create opportunities for himself rather than relying on others to make the offence for him. Auston Matthews and Alexander Ovechkin, two of the best scorers and overall players in the NHL, are similar.  In my books, no playstyle is more valuable than this one, and Gunler possesses it. So what’s a reasonable projection for Gunler’s future? Gunler’s dominance of the SuperElit isn’t common, so we don’t have a whole lot of comparables to find insight in. Since 2004, only three players have posted better draft-minus-one seasons than Gunler:

Unfortunately, all three have yet to reach their NHL peak and two of them, Andersson and Boqvist, haven’t established themselves as full-time NHLers. This severely limits what we can do with this information, but let’s see what we can uncover. Prior to his shortened 2018-19 season, William Nylander put together two consecutive 61 point seasons in his first two years as a full-time NHL player. Using an age curve, and going off of his 2017-18 season considering the circumstances surrounding last year for Nylander, we get a peak projection of 83 points for the Leafs’ winger, just a smidge above a point per game. Looking below Gunler’s production, we can draw one more useful comparable: Elias Lindholm. The Flames breakout star recorded 49 points in 36 games as a D-1 1.36 points per game. Lindholm will turn 25 this December, meaning that next season should be his theoretical “peak”. With the winger’s tremendous breakout this year, I think it’s fair to expect some quantity of decline next season, which would make this past year, his 24 year old season, his peak. Lindholm tallied 78 points in 81 contests this year, not far off from a point per game. With this information, along with our projection for Nylander, I think it’s reasonable to set a peak benchmark for players who achieve this level of production as a SuperElit D-1 at *roughly* a point per game. Of course, there’s one other important factor when we’re making projections like this, and that’s age. When we’re looking at age in the context of NHL draft eligibles, we usually do so as to how it relates to September 15th, the cutoff date for the NHL draft. As you can see in the table a little way up above, Nylander was 17.34 years old as of September 15th of his draft year. As an October birthdate, Gunler is much older at 17.94 years. Born in early December, Elias Lindholm is on the older side too, but not to the same extent as he comes in at 17.79 years.

Considering Gunler’s advanced age relative to those comparable (especially Nylander), we should temper those expectations a little. Not too much though maybe about 10 points or so, putting his projected peak at around 70 points. Of course, this process isn’t exactly scientific, it’s nothing more than an educated guess. However, there is another way we can tackle it. Instead of using Gunler’s comparables to project his peak, we can use a larger sample size of similar prospects to project Gunler’s draft season, and then let a basic age curve take over from there. Based on a weighted average of eight comparables, Gunler should see an increase in production of about 25% from his D-1 to his draft season. If Gunler stays in the SuperElit next season, which is very unlikely, that would translate to 1.89 points per game, unprecedented levels of production. If he makes the jump to the SHL as expected, that’s a projection of 0.71 points per game, which would be nothing short of unreal for a first-time draft eligible.
So we apply the aging curve from there, we come out with a final peak projection of 70 points, right on line with our other method. We can also project his “ceiling” and “floor”. These estimates essentially show Gunler’s career path if he follows the trail of the comparable who showed the greatest and least growth from him pre-draft to draft seasons. For Gunler, that ceiling is 89 points; his floor is 54.

If we feed Gunler’s scoring alone into the projection, we come out with 41 goals, a forecast that anybody who’s seen him play would agree is reasonable for a guy with Gunler’s release and offensive talent. In my eyes, everything we’ve seen here makes it quite clear that Gunler is a special talent. I’m sure this downwards trend of his in recent rankings is just the result of post-Hlinka recency bias, but the Swedish winger will be one of the most underrated prospects in the draft if he doesn’t find his way back into the top 7 where he belongs.

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