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Photo Credit: courtesy Lulea HF

2020 Flames First Round Targets: Noel Gunler

The 2020 NHL Draft will be October 6 & 7, conducted remotely. The Calgary Flames have a first-round selection and will pick 19th overall. In advance of the draft, we’ll be looking at some contenders to be selected at 19th.

Next up? A citizen of the Flames’ favourite overseas hockey market playing for Luleå HF in the Swedish Hockey League, the slick and spindly Noel Gunler.

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Scouting report

Born in Luleå himself—a product of the hometown professional team’s youth development squad—Gunler is a versatile right-handed forward listed as both a left-winger and right-winger, playing whichever role better preens his team’s feathers. A tall player whose build resembles compatriot Elias Pettersson at 6’2” and 174 pounds, Gunler compensates for his lankiness with a heavy shot, ferocious forecheck, and weighty presence on the power play. Add his vision and mobility to the equation, and whoever drafts him is gambling with handsome odds.

First and foremost, Gunler has some wicked finish. His absolutely lethal shot is his most famous trait—the YouTube account Draft Dynasty ranked him as the 8th-best shooter of the entire 2020 NHL draft class and claims that his (i.e., Gunler’s) shot “reminds of Patrik Laine.” Gunler’s effectiveness as a shooter stems from not only from crackling velocity and pinpoint accuracy, but also some ingrained offensive radar that compels him to unload at prime moments, locations. This vision also enhances his abilities as a passer, as he frequently spots and feeds his teammates whenever they’re lurking backdoor. On the power play, Gunler especially dominates the slot area as he alternately uses his impressive height to hover, plant screens at the rim of the crease and also drift higher towards the hashmarks to receive passes and harness the power of his release.

But some folks fear that his killer instinct evaporates when he leaves the offensive zone. The story goes that he tends to stray and putter along the boards or in the slot in his own zone, only half-heartedly marking his man. For any GM assessing his worth at the draft, tenacity in his own end is an area that may very well need some correction to round out his game. In the offensive zone, however, he applies relentless pressure. If he sees a vulnerable defenceman handling the puck, Gunler invades like a virus and prods the infected defenceman until he coughs up the puck:

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Notice how he leads with his stick, though. Another potential drawback concerning Gunler’s style of play is his reluctance to use his body. He pokes and lifts sticks and forces turnovers like a fiend, but he rarely hits. Rather than soldiering along the boards for pucks, Gunler prefers to swoop and weave through open ice and attack with his blade. Most pundits agree that a meagre frame accounts for his furtive game. But as an 18-year-old, he could still fill out.

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Professional scouts have applauded these same highs and dithered over these same lows in anticipation of October’s NHL Draft. Dobber’s Cam Robinson particularly praises Gunler’s vision, though he also addresses the room to improve behind his own blue line:

“Gunler is an offensive weapon. He knows where to be on the ice, how to find the soft spots, how to enact the most potential from space. His shot is very good. He has a nose for distributing as well. The off-puck effort remains concerning, but if you can focus him, his upside is very real.”

And Steve Kournianos of the Draft Analyst highlighted his talent for tearing up the right-side—he also displays a textbook explosive stride, needing only two steps to burst and glide like a revving jet—and beaming lasers (usually snapshots high glove-side, it would seem) on the rush:

A dual threat winger who can humble a defense with timely gear shifting and a deadly shot-release combination, Gunler has one of the draft’s most impressive skill sets when it comes to creating and finishing plays. Gunler is a strong north-south skater with deceptive lateral quickness. He owns a wide stride which can seem choppy at times, but he still is a threat in open ice, not only for his above-average straight-line speed but also for his ability to keep defenders puzzled by looking off while alternating speeds and feigning indecision. The truth is that Gunler is one of the more calculated forwards in his age group when it comes to getting the puck into the zone cleanly, and even at the adult level, opponents seem to have a legitimate fear of playing him too close upon entry. These developments can yield undesirable results for the other team, especially the goalie, who then has to worry about Gunler blistering a nasty wrister from as far out as the top of the circle.

The numbers

A boy among men, Gunler has posted decent but unremarkable numbers playing for Luleå HF in the SHL for parts of two seasons running. Gunler scored 4 goals and 13 points in 45 games at the highest level of Swedish professional hockey (second-most points among draft-eligible players in that league behind Alexander Holtz) this past season as an 18-year-old, and he nabbed 2 goals and 5 points in only 15 games the year before as a 17-year-old. So, though not exactly a generational prodigy, Gunler has proven a promising project for Luleå HF over two seasons despite all that youth. Plus, in the annual European Champions Hockey League tournament last season, Luleå continued to lean on him in a depth role as he notched 4 goals and 6 points over the 11 games they lasted. Next season, one can only expect both his usage and production as a teenager battling adults to increase.

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But he also dominates against his peers. Gunler dressed only 4 times for Luleå’s junior affiliate in the SuperElit this past year, but over those 240 minutes he scored 4 goals and supplemented another 2 assists for a 1.50 points-per-game sample. No wonder the top-flight team adopted him for the rest of the year. And the season before last, in which Gunler played 31 games in Swedish junior, he logged a staggering 27 goals and 19 assists for a sum of 46 points. He finished 7th among total SuperElit scorers that year, and also eclipsed the likes of fellow hotshot 2020 NHL draft prospects Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz with 1.48 points-per-game, the highest rate of any player who played more than 10 games in the entire league. So he is doubtlessly too good to play junior in Sweden as an 18-year-old, though not yet fully developed into a star in the pros.

Availability and fit

How many times have Flames fans repeated, echoed, clamoured the same request?

The team is always hunting another right-handed shot that plays the wing. Well, Noel Gunler fulfills both of these criteria. And after an off-season that could possibly see core pieces (i.e. Johnny Gaudreau) peddled elsewhere, an ensuing season that could witness some wingers (i.e. Elias Lindholm) shuffled to centre and younger stars (i.e. Dillon Dube) displacing the old, and another off-season that will likely entail the shipment of a young skillful forward (i.e. Sam Bennett) southward to Seattle in the expansion draft, Gunler’s arrival as a future top-six calibre guy could inject some talent and stability into a stripped and reformed crop of Flames wingers.

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Projections surrounding his availability at 19th overall in the actual draft bode well for the Flames, too. Elite Prospects ranks Gunler at 22nd among 2020 NHL Draft debutants, FC Hockey at 18th, McKeen’s at 19th, Dobber Prospects at 19th, Bob McKenzie at 28th, Craig Button at 45th, and ISS Prospects at 18th. Those predictions average out at 24th overall—a few rungs lower than the Flames’ draft position, but Mr. Button’s downgrade might have skewed that a bit—leaving the suave and slippery Swede right in their reach.

2020 First Round Targets

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