Checkers’ trust in Guzda paying off

Photo: Gregg Forwerck

📝 by Nick Niedzielski | AHL On The Beat

Much has been made about the leap from juniors to the pro ranks of hockey. It can produce challenges across the board as young players aim to navigate the transitional process.

So when this season began and a rookie netminder was entrusted with the tall task of making that jump while being a key part of the goaltending picture in Charlotte, there was certainly some caution in the approach.

Now, as the season crosses its midway point, Mack Guzda is proving that the organization’s trust has been warranted.

“First year pro, it’s a different league,” said Checkers goaltending coach Leo Luongo. “It’s not junior; it’s every day. You never know how rookies are going to react.

“But he’s been everything we expected and more.”

Guzda’s journey to this point began in a somewhat unique spot for the hockey world: Knoxville, Tennessee.

That’s where Mack’s dad, Brad Guzda, spent four seasons as a netminder himself. That’s where Mack was born, and that’s where the Checkers’ newest netminder found his love for the game.

“My dad played professionally so I always wanted to do it,” said Guzda, who got his start at the youth level in Tennessee, coming up through a system familiar to this region.

“There was a ton of travel,” he said. “I was kind of on a regional team, so we had guys from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, even some guys from North Carolina and Florida. A lot of times we were traveling on the weekends just for practice. It was a lot on my parents; they helped me out a lot.”

Guzda’s path grew from there, and eventually he built himself into a standout goalie in the Ontario Hockey League. An undrafted free agent in his final junior season in 2021-22, Guzda garnered interest across the NHL, but ultimately felt compelled to ink an entry-level deal with the Florida Panthers.

“It was a really good opportunity,” said Guzda. “I’d been to camp in Florida before and had a relationship with Leo. So I was really excited when they offered me a contract and I decided to sign.”

Guzda’s signing was a strong endorsement of the organization’s concentrated efforts to embrace their young talent between the pipes.

“Whatever league they’re playing in — junior, [ECHL], AHL, NHL — they’re never going to be left on an island. We’re always going to support them and communicate with them,” said Luongo.

“I can’t speak for other places, but talking with guys over the years — sometimes they feel that in some places they get left to themselves. Here, we’re always talking with them and supporting them. That’s something that all goalies want.”

Won over by that approach, Guzda inked a deal last spring and joined the Checkers at the conclusion of his OHL season, giving him an up-close view of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“I got a really good look at it when they brought me in to be with the team for the playoff run last year,” said Guzda. “That was huge to just get a taste of what it’s like and see what the day-to-day is and get acclimated. It was a huge experience for me so I could come in this year and know what to expect, know what to work on over the summer and be prepared.”

The 22-year-old spent the summer putting those first-hand lessons to use, exuding some of the traits that made his jump out to Florida in the first place.

“One of the things that we liked when we watched him play last year, he has an extremely high work ethic and compete level,” said Luongo. “He brings it every day in practice, pedal to the metal. When guys are like that and they give it their all, oftentimes it’ll reward their work. It’s helped him.”

Photo: Gregg Forwerck

Guzda made the squad in Charlotte out of training camp and the team entrusted him with being an integral piece of what shaped up to be a very strong roster. But a big part of entrusting him with that role was surrounding him with the tools to make the young netminder successful.

“It’s one of the reasons we brought in J.F. (Berube),” said Luongo. “Last year I went through nine goalies. We didn’t want to put him in a position where he’d have to play more than he should, or put him in a position where, as a young guy, he’d be overexposed. I don’t believe in that. You have to put guys in the right situations and let them grow and develop and not rush them into anything.”

For Guzda, having proven veterans like Berube and Alex Lyon around him has been a beneficial boost.

“I’m extremely lucky to have this group,” said Guzda. “They’ve both been unbelievable, they’re unbelievable professionals to learn from every day. Being able to be on the ice with them and pick their brains… I’ve been roommates on the road with them, I’ve gone to dinner with them, I’ve learned so much from both of those guys.”

“There’s two guys he can lean on,” said Luongo. “I always tell those guys that they’re an extension of me in the room, it’s like two extra coaches he can get feedback from and bounce ideas off of.”

Guzda kicked off his pro career in stellar fashion, winning each of his first two starts while allowing three total goals, and has kept things rolling, even through the inevitable ups-and-downs of a rookie campaign.

In fact, it’s the approach to those challenges that have illustrated what can make Guzda special at this level.

“I think he’s made a couple of adjustments,” said Luongo. “And that’s a credit to him — some guys are not always open to adjustments and they get a little overprotective of the way they play. But he’s coachable and trainable. When you have a guy that’s willing to put in the work and is coachable, more often than not you’re going to see long-term success. So far he’s done all that and the results have shown.”

There remains another big step for Guzda ahead as the season shifts into the all-out grind of a playoff race, but the work that he has put in with his goaltending contingent is preparing him to take it on.

“I think the preparation before getting on the ice is even more important at this stage. That’s what makes the difference,” said Luongo. “Taking care of your body and taking care of what you do away from the rink. That’s something that I’ve talked to him about — at the end of the season that’s what is going to push you to be successful in the playoffs.”

And as he continues to shine and help guide the Checkers up the standings, Guzda remains holding a torch for the next wave of Southern-born hockey players.

“You see guys making it from all over the place now,” said Guzda. “Wherever you are, if you’re a good player you’re going to be found and you’re going to have great opportunities. It’s good to see hockey growing in smaller markets and across the South. It’s really cool.”