The Western Hockey League’s announcement of its season starting in January couldn’t come soon enough for Dylan Guenther.
Like all junior hockey players, the Edmonton Oil Kings forward has had more than his share of off-season after the WHL cut short its 2019-20 schedule and cancelled playoffs.
“I think us players, we are ready and we’ve been ready for probably a couple months now. Players are going to be stoked, I can’t wait for that,” said Guenther, who, unlike all the others, is heading into the coming season of intra-divisional league games as the player projected to go first overall in next year’s NHL Entry Draft.
According to draftsite.com, the 16-year-old native Edmontonian is the early top choice after leading the Oil Kings with 26 goals to establish a new rookie record for the club, as he opened his first full junior season on a point-per-game clip, finishing with 59 of them in 58 outings before COVID-19 shut things down.
“That’s pretty cool but at the same time, you can’t be satisfied with that because the draft is however many months away and I think so much can change heading up into that,” he said. “So, just keeping my focus is important.”
And while Guenther and his teammates didn’t get a chance to pen the final chapter on last season, he is well on his way to rewriting the story that already saw him earn the tag as a first-overall draft pick.
“I think the bantam draft was pretty cool, it was like the spark in my hockey career where the dream you have as a kids becomes something that could become a reality,” said Guenther, who was snapped up from the Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep (where he had been averaging better than two points a game) in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft by ex-Oil Kings general manager Randy Hansch, now a scout with the Buffalo Sabres. “I think that was a big part of my hockey career, it gave me a lot of confidence heading into my first WHL season.
“I’ve been trying to build off that, and watching the draft it’s cool to see some of your teammates, some of your buddies and some of the people you know get drafted.”
Earlier this month, Guenther watched linemate Jake Neighbours get picked up in the first round by the St. Louis Blues.
“That was awesome, I was super stoked for him and for his family, and I know he’s super happy,” Guenther said. “When I saw his name get called, I was really happy for him. I know he works extremely hard. Just, good on him and his hard work paid off.”
The best part is, Neighbours is expected to return to the Oil Kings this season where he will look to help push Guenther to the next draft.
“We’re going to come out of the gates flying, so I think we’re both excited for that opportunity and for the season to get going,” Guenther said, adding he’s not trying to get caught up in the fact he’s now heading into his own draft year. “That’s important, I think it’s a bit different than the other years just because we’re not playing yet and you haven’t really seen the players you’re going to be competing against for spots, and where they’re at.
“So, I think just focusing on myself, my game and just trying to get better every single day, and I think if I do that, I’m going to be in good hands here heading into the season.”
First things first, of course, Guenther would like nothing more than to help the Oil Kings return to the Memorial Cup tournament they last won in 2014. “That’d be super cool, the Memorial Cup is a huge tournament and I think we have the team to do it.
“All of us feel we have a really strong team and a team that could be contending to win it all,” said Guenther, whose squad led the Eastern Conference with a 42-12-6-4 record last season.
Otherwise, 2020 has so far been a lesson in taking things as they come, while making the most of opportunities when they finally present themselves.
“It’s definitely different not going to the rink every day, but we’re battling through it,” said Guenther, who trains daily and has been skating with other junior hockey players in the city. “We have meetings probably every month or so to just reconnect with the team and maybe crack a couple jokes and have some fun, but for the most part we’re on our own.
“I’m still in school, so that’s a bit different for me. There’s definitely more time to get your schoolwork done because you’re there every day and not travelling on the road, which is definitely nicer in that aspect.
“But I think I’d rather be playing and juggling the school schedule, man.”
E-mail: [email protected]
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020