Tim Stutzle can picture it. He’s beating defenders with his blazing speed and pulling highlight-reel dekes in front of NHL crowds, just like his idol Connor McDavid. Even a decade ago, the dream would’ve felt far-fetched for a German kid from Viersen, a town of 75,000, but so much has changed among his countrymen since then. In 2014, Leon Draisaitl went third overall in the draft, and he was arguably the best player in the world this season. In 2018, the Germans reached the gold-medal game at the Pyeongchang Olympics, a shocking accomplishment even in a tourney that didn’t feature NHL players. In 2019, defenseman Moritz Seider went sixth overall. He played for Adler Mannheim in the DEL, like Stutzle does now, and the two were teammates at the 2020 world juniors.
The NHL thus feels very realistic for Stutzle, a dynamic center who could go top three in a loaded 2020 draft class. That makes it all the more frustrating that he has to stay home, waiting out the global COVID-19 pandemic, unsure when the 2020 draft will happen. He passed the time in the early days of the pandemic playing inline hockey outside with his buddies. After the isolation rules tightened, he was stuck at home, an only child with just his parents as company.
Just because his young career is frozen in time doesn’t mean it won’t bloom someday soon, however. Stutzle has the makings of a scintillating NHL scorer with he-did-what moves that will make him popular in GIF format.
“I would say my skating, playmaking and stickhandling are my best abilities,” Stutzle said. “But I can work on everything. I’m young.”
Not just young – consistently younger than everyone he plays with. Yet he still dominates. Rising up the German junior rankings, averaging better than a goal per game was his “normal.” He did it in his age-13 and age-14 seasons on an under-16 team, settled for “only” 18 goals in 25 games as a 15-year-old for Adler Mannheim’s under-19 squad and ripped off 23 in 21 games at 16 with the under-20s before making the pro club in the DEL at 17. Even though the German League sits (just) outside the top five pro circuits in the world, it’s one of the best, so it’s a testament to Stutzle’s talent that he rose so fast. He joined a team full of ex-NHLers including Ben Smith, Andrew Desjardins, Borna Rendulic and Germany’s own Marcel Goc. It didn’t take long for Stutzle to turn heads with his wheels and raw star power.
“His offensive hockey skills, his skating and ability to beat players 1-on-1 and create outnumbered situations, it’s a big asset,” said Adler Mannheim coach Pavel Gross. “Especially the quickness, how he can recognize the situation, how he is able to create new scoring chances for his teammates. That’s something, as a coach, you cannot teach.”
As a first-year pro, Stutzle posted a stat line characteristic of a playmaker: seven goals and 34 points in 41 games. But once he reaches his potential and gets used to playing against men, the goals should come. Forget the obvious and inaccurate comparison to Draisaitl, a hulking puck protector. Gross sees Stutzle, at a stringy 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, as more of an Elias Pettersson type. The difference right now, Gross says, is Pettersson has one of the NHL’s deadliest releases, whereas Stutzle has to work on getting his shot off quicker. He has yet to consistently translate his speed into good outcomes. He also doesn’t always come out with the puck when he goes into the corner against a big, heavy defenseman.
“The thing I want to work on this summer is getting stronger on the ice to stay on my feet the whole time in battles,” Stutzle said. “That’s the thing I worked a lot on (this) season, playing against men.”
Gross and Tobias Abstreiter, Germany’s world junior coach, list defensive play as the No. 1 skill Stutzle must refine. Not that either views it as a long-term problem.
“Whether it’s Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes, whoever signed with an NHL team and then played right away, they all have to improve their play without the puck,” Abstreiter said. “It’s a very important part that coaches want to see. They want to have a good gut feeling when they put these young players on the ice against other top lines. But this is normal. All those young players have to learn to improve their defensive game.”
The COVID-19 sports shutdown could benefit Stutzle’s chances of jumping straight to the NHL. He’s been committed to working out and building strength, and if the 2020-21 season doesn’t start until late fall or early winter, he could have 10 or 15 pounds of muscle packed on, making him stronger on the puck.
If he jumps directly to the NHL, it might not be at his natural position. Stutzle was a center his whole life but played left wing this season and says he enjoyed it as much as he does center. Gross believes the wing maximizes Stutzle’s potential. As Gross explains it, Stutzle’s skills are more disruptive on the wing, since he can beat D-men to create chances inside for himself or outskate them to the outside along the boards and circle the net to set up teammates. Playing the wing also means less defensive responsibility, which is good for a youngster. So if Stutzle fast-tracks to the NHL, the best-case scenario would be to do so as a winger – with high-end company on a scoring line.
“If you put him on the fourth line, he’s gonna die there, know what I mean?” Gross said. “He was 17 years old, and we just said in our organization, ‘You know what? We’re going to bring him the right way with the good players, with two good players, players with a lot of experience.’ ”
Stutzle played with Smith and Finnish right winger Tommi Huhtala this season. Not only did Stutzle learn a lot about the nuances of the pro game from them, but he also absorbed a ton of English. That will help him ingratiate quicker when he comes to North America. He describes himself as shy, but that doesn’t mean he’s an introvert. Gross views him as someone who isn’t the loudest guy in the room but isn’t the quiet loner, either.
“He’s a good team guy,” Abstreiter said. “He treats everybody the same. He doesn’t think he’s something special. He’s never too arrogant or puts his ego in front. He’s very focused for his age.”
Stutzle has a real shot to tie Draisaitl as the highest-drafted German of all-time at third overall. It would be an upset if Stutzle gets picked before man-child Quinton Byfield at No. 2, though. There’s a certain level of pressure that comes with being the No. 1 or 2 pick in a draft class, but it lessens once you reach No. 3 and down. Jonathan Drouin didn’t jump right to the NHL. Nor did Dylan Strome or Pierre-Luc Dubois. So it wouldn’t be a big surprise if Stutzle gets one more year of seasoning. With his maturity, though, he’ll take his fate in stride. He’s quick on the ice but patient off it.
“The hype was a lot this season in Mannheim, and I just enjoyed it, but we need to settle down a little bit,” he said. “My goal is to play in the NHL a long time and win something. I haven’t reached anything yet. You have to stay on the ground and be humble and work hard.”
This is an edited version of a story that appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Draft Preview Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.