Name: Noel Gunler
Team: Luleå HF (SHL)
Position: Right wing
Stats: 45 games played, 4 goals, 9 assists, 13 points, 16 PIMs, +12 plus/minus rating
NHL Central Scouting ranking: 9th (European Skaters)
Comparable NHL player: Bobby Ryan
Like Patrice Bergeron in his defensive zone, a bad reputation is a difficult thing to shake off.
That’s what Swedish prospect Noel Gunler must have realized over the course of this past season.
Despite plenty of scoring success at every level coming up through the ranks, the dangerous winger was surprisingly left off of Sweden’s international rosters for the past few big tournaments that he was eligible for. The 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, the 2019 IIHF U18s and then the 2020 World Juniors all came and went without Gunler taking part.
There were comments last spring from a national program coach, Magnus Hävelid, about the U18 snub being related to roles and roster building, but in spite of that, rumors began swirling about Gunler having attitude issues and clashing with coaches. And like these sorts of things usually go, those rumors dogged Gunler all season long, sparking widespread discussion as he slipped down published draft rankings.
Was there any truth to the rumors? Little was ever said publicly and evidence was scant. However, according to an unnamed scout quoted in The Hockey News’ 2020 draft guide, there were a “couple fallouts with coaches, talking back when they criticized his game.” The scout also said Gunler was “immature,” but at the same time, he called the player’s bad reputation “overblown.” From private conversations I’ve had and seen within the non-NHL-affiliated scouting community, including remarks from scouts in Sweden, “overblown” seems to be a very good descriptor of what happened.
The whole scenario is a real shame, because at the end of the day, Gunler is one heck of a hockey player.
When it comes to raw goal-scoring upside, Gunler is one of the best members of this draft class. He gets a ton of power behind his wrist shot, he can pick corners with it and he’s able to get it off easily while at top speed. He has an advanced ability to disguise the release point on his wrist shot, which forces goalies to have to guess a little about where the puck is going to go.
Gunler also possesses some very high-end anticipation and awareness, which allows him to force turnovers that lead to transition rushes, or sneak behind enemy lines to receive stretch passes. He can find those quiet areas of open ice below the hash marks and make himself a dangerous option. He’s not exactly a premium playmaker because he’s not overly creative and his passes aren’t always tape-to-tape, but he has that innate ability to know where his teammates are pretty much all of the time, helping him move the puck and create scoring opportunities even with a multitude of moving parts around him.
Even though he’s not a physical player right now (according to the SHL website he recorded exactly zero hits this season, which doesn’t even seem possible), he does still measure in nicely at 6-foot-2, so he has the potential to score garbage goals if he starts going hard to the net on a more consistent basis. Skating-wise, his mechanics are a little choppy, but he has long strides, good lower-body strength and he plays with a lot of jump, so he’s able to explode into lanes in a straight line. When you combine the size and the speed, there’s a lot of upside to Gunler as a winger who will be hard to handle because of his physical tools, especially if he can clean up his stride. Needless to say, guys who can both create space for themselves using their physical tools as well as snipe pucks from a variety of different places usually do pretty darn well in the NHL.
As if all the talk about his attitude wasn’t enough, there were also rumors that popped up about his work ethic and defensive play. These, however, were a lot harder to understand, at least from my viewings. When I watched Gunler, I saw someone who was engaged, who played on his toes, who was sticky in his puck-less coverage and who was able to back up defenders by applying himself and pushing the pace. He’ll probably never be a shutdown forward at the NHL level, or even a regular penalty killer, but he’s a guy who puts in enough honest effort defensively that he’s not a liability in that regard.
Nice little play on the boards here by Noel Gunler (#8 in Red).— Tony Ferrari (@theTonyFerrari) October 31, 2019
He pins the defender to the boards and then finds the loose puck. He kicks it back down low and it leads to a scoring chance. Great play by the #2020NHLDraft prospect. pic.twitter.com/vu5fid8KTi
Gunler spent the vast majority of the 2019-20 with Luleå in the SHL, which should be expected considering he’s a late birthday (he missed the 2019 draft by three weeks). His scoring totals (13 points in 45 games) might not jump off the page at you, but when you recognize that Luleå was the best team in the league and that Gunler only averaged 9:49 of ice time per game (which was 15th among forwards on the team), the context makes them look a lot better.
When you look at the big picture, Gunler becomes one of the biggest “dark horse” prospects of this draft. You could make the argument that, solely in terms of tools, he is in the Top 10 of his draft class. However, with the knocks on him about his attitude and his lack of international track record against his peers (which can serve as a useful measuring stick, especially for prospects who play in pro leagues against men), he could be a guy who ultimately slides down the big draft board.
If he does slide far enough in the 1st round, would the Dallas Stars be interested?
The organization could certainly use an offensive shot in the arm in their prospect pool, and their track record shows that they love wingers with size who can move well north-south. On the other hand, in 2018 the team used their 44th overall selection to pick Albin Eriksson, another Swedish winger who had been passed over for international events due to rumored troubles not related to his on-ice performance. That decision is looking a little precarious as of right now because he had a messy 2019-20 season for multiple different reasons, but one of which nevertheless include his frustration boiling over in negative ways. Would the team want to play things a little safer with this pick?
For my money, the chance to get this kind of talent that late in the 1st round would simply be too good to pass up.