Cole Guttman has tallied 22 points in 26 games for Rockford this season.
Sarah Caputi/Rockford IceHogs
During his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Denver, Cole Guttman was productive offensively but didn’t play on the penalty kill.
So he decided to change that. He worked on faceoffs, positioning and defensive stick usage. He set a goal to be a regular penalty-killer by his senior year, and he accomplished it — and, along the way, captained Denver to a national championship.
“That was a big focus of mine and something I wanted to earn,” he said.
Now in his first season as a Blackhawks prospect — having signed in August, shortly after letting his draft rights with the Lightning expire — Guttman, 23, has brought the same work ethic, versatility and quick learning skills to Rockford. Coach Anders Sorensen has enjoyed watching him.
“His instincts for the game, his competitiveness and his willingness to get inside the dots [is impressive],” Sorensen said. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he can make plays and he’s slippery. It’s hard to catch him. We like him for those attributes.”
The Hawks have a plan to bolster their meager forward prospect pipeline. They used nine of 11 draft picks last summer on forwards and will devote a similarly large portion of their 2023 draft capital, including almost certainly their top-five overall selection.
But for the next couple years — before those generations reach the NHL — the Hawks will need to strike gold in unlikely places to keep a small stream of offensive talent moving up the ranks.
Guttman fits the “unlikely place” category. He was a sixth-round pick in 2017. He’s only 5-9, 170 pounds. He was a very good player but not a superstar in college. His odds of turning into gold, however, are steadily increasing.
“I don’t know exactly what his ceiling is going to be, but I think he can be an NHL player,” Sorensen said.
The IceHogs have leaned on Guttman in many different situations this season, which is rare for a rookie. He really is effective at faceoffs, which is even rarer for a rookie, because he knows how to win them in different ways and feels comfortable switching styles within games if necessary. He has received “more and more” PK time as the season has gone on.
And he has tallied points at a stellar rate, too, with 11 goals and 11 assists in 26 games despite missing a few weeks early on with a concussion. He’s seventh among AHL rookies in points per game (0.85).
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect coming into my first year pro, but obviously the college level really helps prepare you for this level,” Guttman said. “I was happy with how [Hawks training camp] went. And then coming into the season, I’m obviously happy how it’s going so far.”
Offensively, he has worked on winning battles and immediately attacking the net off the wall. The presences of much bigger, older defensemen do not intimidate him; he knows he’s faster and equally strong, albeit undersized.
And defensively, Sorensen has coached Guttman on reading plays at a higher level so he can identify not only where the puck is but where the next play will take it.
“He’s a sponge,” Sorensen said. “Everything we’ve talked about, he adapts pretty quickly. Even within the game, you can tell him to make some adjustments on little things and he picks up on it right away.”
With Lukas Reichel now promoted to the NHL full-time, Guttman might be the best forward prospect in Rockford. Josiah Slavin and Mike Hardman are just grinders, nothing more; Michal Teply has been inconsistent; the other forwards are minor-league veterans.
It would not be surprising to see the Hawks reward Guttman — and satisfy their own curiosity about his ceiling — with an NHL call-up during the second half of this season.