Evaluating Cole Guttman's brief – but encouraging – NHL stint
The free-agent signing from the University of Denver had some standout moments in his short NHL stint.
A lot has been made about how the Blackhawks haven't been able to develop a defenseman in well over a decade. While the organization is better at finding and developing forwards, that list isn't too long, either, and the Blackhawks have had an issue with keeping them around. Former GM Stan Bowman had a history of trading his top young players before they reached their second contract in Chicago – Brandon Saad, Artemi Panarin, Nick Schmaltz, and Ryan Hartman, to name a few – and the only break of this trend was Alex DeBrincat in 2019. However, new GM Kyle Davidson quickly flipped the few good young forwards he had – DeBrincat and Brandon Hagel – for other assets like draft capital, which still left the Blackhawks bereft of quality forward talent at or near the NHL level.
There were only two younger regulars in Chicago this past season who have top-six potential, but both are pretty much at the "make it or break it" stage of their development: Philipp Kurashev (soon to be 24) and Taylor Raddysh (just turned 25).
However, much like the defensemen, the Blackhawks did give a taste of NHL action to a few rookie forwards last season. Lukas Reichel was obviously the star of these two – and we'll go into more depth about him later in another article – but Cole Guttman also piqued interest, so let's take a closer look at the end of his season with Rockford and his 14-game performance in Chicago.
The Blackhawks signed Guttman last August to a two-year deal after his rights with the Tampa Bay Lightning expired. The former sixth-rounder spent four years at the University of Denver, finishing his senior year with 45 points (19 G, 26 A) in 41 games and captaining the Pioneers to the 2022 NCAA Championship. His production wasn't prolific, but he fit the style of player the current Blackhawks have focused on recently: smart, speedy, and highly competitive with above average hands.
Guttman spent most of this season in Rockford, where he was undisputedly one of the IceHogs' best forwards: he was fourth overall among regulars in points-per-game with 0.77 and named Rookie of the Year for the IceHogs. He was often on a line with Reichel, adding a scrappier element to Reichel's more finesse-like style. Typically known more for his playmaking, Guttman was more of a goal scorer than usual when paired with Reichel and it resulted in a 30-goal pace (in a 72-game sample). His strong play earned him a call-up from Rockford in February when Jonathan Toews was placed on injured reserve with a COVID-related illness.
Once in the NHL, Guttman was placed at second-line center alongside Tyler Johnson and Taylor Raddysh, and looked pretty comfortable in the role. He scored his first goal in his third game, and ended the season with six points (4 G, 2 A). On the surface, that's not exactly impressive, but stretch it out over and 82-game season and that's solid third-line production at about 35 points (23 G, 12 A). Guttman was also third in production at 5-on-5 during those 14 games, behind only Patrick Kane (7 points) and Max Domi (9 points). Considering Guttman joined the Blackhawks during one of their worst offensive stretches of the season, those points were hard-earned.
Now, it's important to note that Guttman's 14-game sample was just shy of the 20 typically used as the benchmark for individual player evaluation, but it's close enough that we can feel somewhat comfortable in this analysis. Beyond the scorecard, there's a lot to like about Guttman, though he also has some areas to work on as well.
For example, despite scoring being the focus of his results, Guttman didn't necessarily score in a sustainable way. His shooting percentage of 14.29 at 5-on-5 is a bit on the high side for him historically, and his shooting habits in terms of quantity (7.17 shots per 60) and quality (6.83 scoring chances per 60) were well below average. This doesn't mean Guttman won't continue to score well in the NHL, it just means he'll need to figure out how to translate his play into a higher volume of shots as well as getting in closer to the net. The latter is something he did extremely well in the NCAA and AHL. In fact, Guttman has never been afraid of camping in front of a goalie to knock in "dirty" goals. His lackluster shooting stats were also likely affected by his most common linemate being Tyler Johnson, whose passing game was not to high-danger areas.
Speaking of passing games, though, Guttman had some strong underlying numbers when it came to his playmaking, even if they didn't result in assists. His primary shot assist rate of 10.08 per 60 actually topped the rest of the forwards: it was a slightly better rate than Patrick Kane's 9.54 per 60. In addition to the strong quantity, Guttman also had strong quality with his passing: his 4.03 scoring chance assist per 60 rate was second only to Kane's 4.52 and his 2.02 per 60 high-danger pass rate was first among Chicago forwards. Again, Guttman's sample is on the small size, so these could be slightly skewed, but they do fall in line with his style of playmaking seen at other levels. It's also possible that, if Guttman had played with better finishers, his production could have been even higher.
In terms of transition, Guttman skates and passes well enough to have a solid impact there, though his carry-in percentage (47.6) is just under league average. His zone entries per 60 rate (19.15) was third on the team and well above average, leaning more into his passing for this skill. For exits, he did a decent job forechecking (6.93 pressures per 60, slightly above average) but could have done better in those turning into recoveries (2.31 per 60, under average again).
Adding another layer to the Guttman evaluation is that he was apparently playing through a shoulder injury sustained in November. The Blackhawks ultimately shut him down for the season in March after that injury – which required surgery – was aggravated further on Feb. 25. But that means he played at least three months with a nagging injury that likely impacted his offensive production, especially while in the NHL. Reportedly, Guttman wanted to keep playing through to the end of the season, but the Blackhawks wanted him healed and in game shape by training camp for next season.
Ultimately, Guttman showed flashes of skill and potential to play in the NHL, most likely in a third-line role. There are some concerns over his size – he is only 5-foot-9 and 167 pounds – but that hasn't held him back so far in his hockey career and he's already pretty fearless in terms of puck battles and forechecking. Guttman also isn't going to necessarily wow every game, but he's the type of player who combines grit and skill in a reliable complementary role.