On the heels of Leon Draisaitl becoming the first German-born NHLer to ever be crowned as the league’s scoring champion, Tim Stuetzle is set to arrive in North America as the next core piece of German hockey’s golden generation.
Burning through a 2019-20 season that saw him earn rookie of the year honours in Germany’s DEL, Stuetzle looked set to slot in pretty much unanimously as the most highly-touted 2020 prospect not named Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield.
That said, with his sterling season in Germany slowly but steadily rocketing him up the rankings over the course of the year, the conversation’s more recently shifted to whether the high-skill Adler Mannheim product has in fact earned himself the No. 2 spot in this year’s draft.
Of course, for the teenage phenom who saw his successful campaign push him into elite draft territory, focus remained trained on the former not the latter — and the same goes for right now.
“My goal was to get drafted as high as possible, but I really tried to focus on my season,” he says. “I wanted to win the championship with Mannheim, so I needed to focus on that. But right now, nobody knows anything so it doesn’t really make sense to think about it a lot — I just try to focus right now on my off-ice season and getting stronger, improving everything. I think that’s most important right now, and then we can see what’s going to happen.”
While it remains to be seen what exactly is going to happen, one thing’s clear — Stuetzle enters the 2020 NHL Draft as the top-ranked European skater without a doubt, and a near certainty to be among the first names called on draft day.
Team: Adler Mannheim (DEL)
Position: Centre/Left Wing
Hometown: Viersen, Germany
Age: 18 (Jan 15, 2002)
Weight: 165 pounds
With a skill-set grounded in high-end stickhandling ability, elite vision, and a knack for deceiving the opposition with his feet, Stuetzle’s game has at times drawn comparisons to that of high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner.
If anyone could speak to the similarity, it would be former Maple Leaf and Toronto Marlie Ben Smith. The 31-year-old suited up alongside Marner and Auston Matthews during the pair’s rookie year in Toronto, and also skated on Stuetzle’s line this past season in Mannheim, the young German’s first year at the pro level. And just for good measure, he also spent a few years alongside another pair of high-flyers in Chicago, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
And the similarity between young Stuetzle and the above-mentioned all-stars is certainly there, according to Smith.
“He has that unique ability just to change a game in a flash — he just needs the puck and he can make something happen. That’s how I would see him similar to Kaner or Mitchy, those kind of players,” Smith says. “Every time he’s on the ice, he’s a threat. And he has the ability to do something that makes everyone go ‘Wow,’ you know? And that’s what I think is the most comparable thing about him, especially with his skating, his deceptiveness, his ability to get out of trouble. When you feel like he’s in a vulnerable spot, two seconds later he’s beat the guy and on his way to the net.”
Todd Hlushko, the director of player development and pro scouting for Adler Mannheim and a former NHLer in his own right, has been watching Stuetzle continue to add to his game since the forward first made the move to Mannheim from Krefelder. And Hlushko saw the prized prospect blossom into one of the most dynamic talents in the DEL over this past season.
“Fans will fall in love with this kid immediately — he’s the type of player that gets you out of your seat,” Hlushko says. “He’ll grab the puck on one end of the ice, and he has the ability to skate through the entire team. But he also has the hockey intelligence to understand when to dish the puck and when to get open for passes.”
Aside from the quick hands and that knack for playmaking, though, Hlushko says it’s Stuetzle’s indomitable motor that should best set him up for success at the sport’s highest level.
“I still think that probably out of all the players in Europe right now, the draftable kids, he is by far the best skater that you’ll find out of Europe in the draft this year,” Hlushko says. “That includes everyone out of Sweden, Russia. His change of gears, his foot-speed, his elusiveness and his ability to control the puck while operating at high-end speed is NHL-ready, right now.
“Everything about his game — his hockey IQ, his fitness, his willingness to be in the gym and train, is NHL-ready right now.”
Boy against men
Much like recent No. 6 pick and Mannheim alum Moritz Seider, Stuetzle opted to remain in Germany for his draft year, despite getting offers from the CHL and NCAA. It’s clear the decision paid off given how rapidly the wunderkind progressed over the course of this past season.
According to him, the biggest impact advancing to the pro level had on the way he plays was in shoring up his defensive game, with the challenge of going up against men working in a finely-tuned system forcing Stuetzle to rein in his dazzling skill.
“When I came to Mannheim I played youth hockey, I played under-20 hockey. The pro game is a lot faster, a lot more skillful — they are so much smarter players on the teams, stronger guys. So, I think I changed a lot,” Stuetzle says. “When I was young, I dangled a lot on the blue line and maybe had some turnovers. But my coaches really taught me very good — maybe I made too many circles in the defensive zone, not like start and stops, so I think I developed that very good.”
That learning process was aided by the team opting to move Stuetzle out of his natural position and start him out on the wing, with veterans Smith and Tommi Huhtala alongside to show him the ropes.
“He’s a traditional centreman — we put him on the wing last year just to kind of alleviate maybe some of the pressure, some of the heavier stronger centremen in the league. But I think ultimately he will be a centreman in the National Hockey League, and he’s going to be one of the most creative players that you’ve seen in a long, long time,” Hlushko says.
Case in point, it didn’t take long for the teenager to shake off the training wheels and prove he could not only hang with the veterans, but lead them.
“I mean, he was 17 years old and he was running our power play in Mannheim — everything went through him on the left side,” Hlushko says. “For a 17-year-old, an 18-year-old, to be able to do that in a professional league with men, with guys that have won Stanley Cups, and to see that the high-percentage passes, and the ability to make plays and see openings and be creative on our power play, was impressive to watch at a young age.
“Nevermind getting someone who’s had success already in the American League or the NHL coming over and doing it. You’re getting a 17-year-old teenager running our power play, running our power play to the league’s best — I think it was about 31 per cent we were clipping at, it was the best in the league by far. And he was a massive part of that.”
In Stuetzle’s view, the education that came off the ice was just as important, with the jump to that top level offering the chance to learn, daily, how professionals conduct themselves.
“That was pretty good for me, to get to know every veteran, how he’s preparing for games, how he’s training hard, what he’s doing on the ice to be that good and to be a better guy and a leader,” Stuetzle says. “And playing against men, training against men, I think that’s very important — I think that makes the step to the NHL a little bit easier.”
Going for history
Whether that DEL experience makes his NHL debut any easier remains to be seen, but one thing about his journey to North America that’s a sure thing is that it’s going to be historic.
Only three German-born players have ever cracked the NHL Draft’s top 10. The first was Orest Romashyna, who was taken third-overall in 1963 by Boston and never played a game in The Show. The other two were fellow Mannheim products Draisaitl (No. 3, 2014 draft) and Seider (No. 6, 2019 draft).
For Stuetzle to not land among that group would be a massive upset for how most expect the top end of this draft to play out — all signs point to the DEL rookie of the year matching Draisaitl at third-overall at the very least.
There is a chance, though, that Stuetzle walks away from the 2020 NHL Draft as the highest-drafted German player in NHL history, with momentum building behind the notion that he’s the second-best prospect in his class. The potential for that moment isn’t lost on him, though he also knows that aspect isn’t for him to decide or dwell on.
“For sure, I think it would be a very, very big honour for me. It’s definitely my goal to be the best drafted German,” says Stuetzle. “But right now I can’t change anything, I can’t show anything more. I can just be myself, be honest. … I don’t really think about the history I can make, I just think right now [about] day to day, I just want to train hard, make my body the best it can be, and improve everything. I want to get better, and that’s most important right now.”
Whether his name is called second, third, or anywhere else on draft day, it won’t change what’s undeniably true — German hockey is on track for its finest hour. The first inklings of that growth have been on display for the world to see — a silver medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics that showed the strength of their non-NHL talent; a wave of young talent that includes Seider alongside another pair of 2020 first-round hopefuls in John-Jason Peterka and Lukas Reichel; and, of course, the country’s first Art Ross Trophy winner in Draisaitl.
Stuetzle is without a doubt the next key piece of that progress.
“I think in Germany we have a lot of guys working very hard for their dream coming true,” the teenager says. “We have in the DEL a lot of guys working very hard, especially young guys. We have great veterans, too … and they really want to make the young players the best, and really want them to grow, really want them to be the best players they can. So, I think that’s very important.
“I think German hockey’s getting better too in the DEL — from year to year, the league is getting better. I think most of the guys [in North America] don’t know that German hockey is really, really good, and … it’s getting better and better.”