Guttman taking setbacks in stride

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

📝 by Patrick Williams

Cole Guttman can handle a setback.

Or two.

Guttman underwent hip surgery at age 18, limiting him to 17 games with Dubuque of the United States Hockey League in 2017-18.

But the 5-foot-9, 168-pound forward came through it. Four highly successful seasons at the University of Denver followed, including captaining the Pioneers to a national championship as a senior in 2022. He signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in August, attended his first NHL training camp, and made his pro debut with the Rockford IceHogs on Oct. 15 in the team season opener at Manitoba.

Then, another stumbling block. Guttman got tangled up with a teammate during that game and was placed in concussion protocol, spending nearly a full month out of the Rockford lineup while going through the resulting recovery process.

“I felt like I came out having a good camp, so I was excited to get started,” Guttman said. “It was definitely a setback just trying to find out where I fit in at this level. In practice, I was able to gain a little confidence coming before I got my first games in, and so once the games started, I felt pretty comfortable.

“Everyone was really great within the organization, the teammates and the staff, and really helped to bring me back in stride.”

“In stride” is an understatement.

Thanks in part to Guttman’s work, the IceHogs are just three points out of first place in the Central Division at 19-10-1-2 (41 points). Since the Los Angeles-area native returned to action on Nov. 12, they are 15-6-1-1.

Guttman quickly won head coach Anders Sorensen’s trust, playing both on the power play and penalty kill and becoming a dependable face-off option. And along the way, he has picked up 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 24 appearances for the AHL’s fifth-most productive offense (3.72 goals per game). Guttman has been flanked by veteran wingers Dylan Sikura and Buddy Robinson to form one of Rockford’s more productive lines for a portion of the season.

“The biggest thing that stuck out to me is everyone’s doing the right thing,” Guttman said of his introduction to the AHL. “My last two years I’ve really been working on a full, well-rounded game. Earning the responsibility and the trust of [a] coach to be put out in all situations is my goal and what I want to do as a player.”

Guttman and Robinson hit it off quickly in training camp.

“[Robinson] really brought me into the program, brought me to the pro lifestyle, because I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” Guttman said. “But I learned a lot from him and also playing with Sikura a lot, just seeing his habits and what he does [each day].”

The IceHogs picked up their latest victory, their fourth in a row, Tuesday night at BMO Center with a 4-3 overtime win over first-place Texas. A minute into the extra session, Guttman won a race to a loose puck inside the neutral zone and set up Lukas Reichel for the game-winner. Rockford has won four of six meetings with Texas and is responsible for the only two blemishes on the Stars’ current 10-0-2-0 run, the longest point streak in the AHL this season.

It has been a quick adjustment to the AHL for Guttman, who came to the Chicago organization with a decidedly mature game. He went through a high-pressure experience at Denver, where the 2021-22 campaign became a storybook one for him.

He donned the “C” for Denver, one of the most prestigious programs anywhere in college hockey, and posted career-bests with 19 goals, 26 assists and 45 points to earn team MVP honors for the second straight year while leading the Pioneers to their ninth NCAA championship. He was also named DU’s male student-athlete of the year. In all, Guttman compiled 121 points (55 goals, 66 assists) across his four seasons and 140 appearances with Denver.

“It was an honor to be the captain of that team,” Guttman said of a group that included fellow AHL rookies Bobby Brink of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Carter Savoie of Bakersfield Condors. “I think a lot of guys elevated their game and had an amazing year. That’s a group that really deserved it.”

But once Guttman stepped off campus, he had a major career decision to make. Taken in the sixth round of the 2017 NHL Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Guttman had gone to development camp with the club earlier in his college career. But cracking the roster of an NHL club coming off three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final — and championships in 2020 and 2021 — would have been an especially difficult path. With his stock high following his standout senior season, Guttman’s draft rights expired in August and he found a quick match instead with the rebuilding Blackhawks organization.

“I’m really happy with how it went with Chicago,” Guttman explained. “Our talks went really well before I signed. I began talking to them pretty quickly right after the [Aug. 15] deadline.”

The road to sustained success for any NHL organization relies heavily on effective, consistent player development with its AHL affiliate. Go back to the mid-2000s, before Chicago built a dynasty that won three Stanley Cups, and the blueprint looks quite similar. Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith, Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell and Kris Versteeg all came through Chicago’s AHL development program on their way to winning championships.

To that end, Blackhawks management has undertaken an aggressive approach along those same lines. Draft well, add a potential find via free agency like Guttman, and the early seeds for future success can be put in place. Chicago has invested heavily in adding development staff, and the NHL organization purchased the IceHogs outright in April 2021 to integrate the AHL operation further. That also meant implementing an offseason plan to strengthen the Rockford roster, to surround a growing core of young prospects like Guttman with experience.

It all sounded good to Guttman. Three days after he became a free agent, he and Chicago struck a deal.

“Opportunity is a huge thing.”

NHL organizations also want winners. Guttman experienced — and fostered — such an environment with Denver.

“The camaraderie between the guys [with Denver], it didn’t matter whether you were a senior or freshman,” Guttman recalled. “Everybody is really good friends. Everybody went out to dinner away from the rink, golfed together. We just had a really close-knit group of guys, and it makes you want to come to the rink to work hard together and compete.”

Photo: Todd Reicher

Guttman went through his own learning experience after earning the Denver captaincy as well. Part of that education came when during his sophomore season in 2019-20, when the Pioneers’ captain was current IceHogs and Blackhawks defenseman Ian Mitchell.

“Learning when to speak up, [and] when not to speak up, was something that I definitely wanted to work on,” Guttman acknowledged. “Using my voice was something that I struggled with at the start. I [felt] like I would be good at leading by example. I think that’s one of my strengths.

“And then just learning how to speak in front of the team and knowing what to say at the right times [was] probably the biggest area of improvement, but the guys really helped bring me along, and I improved on it throughout the year.”

Now some of those same lessons are being reinforced in Rockford, where the IceHogs are positioned to gear up for a strong second half that could set them up for success in the Calder Cup Playoffs this spring.

“We have older leadership,” Guttman said, “A lot of guys have had successful pro careers already, and you can see now we’ve a lot of guys doing pretty amazing things in this league this year. It’s fun for the younger guys to look up to.

“We have a really skilled team and a deep team, and it’s really fun to get on the ice and pick their brains.”