When Frederik Gauthier
watches the IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championship tournament this year, he does so with a much different perspective than he did a year or two ago. As a two-time member of Team Canada’s WJC squad, the 20-year-old Laval, Que., native now knows as well as anyone what a whirlwind, pressure-laden experience it is for a teenaged hockey player to represent his country while just about every one of his countrymen are watching.
“Before, from outside, you see they’re just playing hockey, but there are a lot of different things - jet lag, for instance – and you have to get used to it,” said Gauthier, now a center for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and a valued asset in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ growing pool of prospects. “There’s all those little details you’ve got to take care of, and I think Hockey Canada has always done a great job of taking all the little distractions away. You get a better understanding playing overseas, too, and that’s unique to adapt to.”
You hear the word “unique” quite a bit when people are talking about Gauthier. Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe uses that word to describe him as a player and a person, and when you see what Gauthier brings to the table – a 6-foot-4 frame and a man who already excels in the arts of defense and faceoffs – you can see why he stands out. And clearly, in making him a first-round pick (21st overall) in the 2013 NHL entry draft, the Maple Leafs believe they’ve got a player who can help win games and, one day, Stanley Cups.
But although Gauthier is known for his size and defensive acumen – not to mention a winning pedigree that includes a gold medal with Canada at the 2015 WJC, and a Quebec Major Junior League championship with the Rimouski Oceanic last season – it’s his willingness to take instruction and adapt that’s earning him the most praise in the Leafs organization at the moment.
But let’s be clear: when we’re talking about instruction, we’re not talking just about instruction from Toronto’s coaching staff. It’s also about working with a slew of people within the organization and being open to change. Sometimes, that’s easier said than done for elite players accustomed to routine and familiarity. However, in his first year as a pro with the Marlies, Gauthier has been a sponge and listened to everyone – coaches, development staff, equipment staff – whose goal it is to make him better.
“The biggest thing that stands out for me with Freddy is his ability to take what we’re teaching him and then applying it, working at it and showing improvement,” said Keefe. “It’s really been impressive to see his ability to retain information and apply it. He’s shown tremendous growth there in a very short period of time.”
Despite the season being less than halfway finished, Gauthier is already seeing positive results in the wake of changes he’s made. To wit: he recently changed the profile on his skates, as it was suggested to him he’d been on his heels too much as he moved along the ice. Now, he’s leaning forward and feeling immediate improvement, and as he makes the adjustment from junior hockey to a far quicker pro game, that increased comfort is manifesting in what Keefe sees as a higher level of comfort from Gauthier when he’s playing with the puck.
Another positive part of Gauthier’s development is the overall success of the Marlies in the standings. Playing for one of the AHL’s deepest and most talented teams, he isn’t all alone in the spotlight. The youngster can work on his craft free of external pressures and at his own pace, and do so in a winning environment where coming to the rink every day is fun. That’s not something to be underestimated.
“When you’re a winning team, it is easier,” Gauthier said of his development. “The atmosphere around the team is better, guys are happier. It’s better to get in the league and start winning. It’s always easier to learn when you’re winning.”
There are still elements of Gauthier’s game that need polish – he needs to become physically stronger and make more of an advantage out of his big body – and he was sidelined by injury in December, temporarily impeding his progress in all areas. But again, this is a young man who won’t turn 21 until April. His best days are ahead.
And what’s most important right now is the way he’s exemplifying the manner in which prospects are properly developed – and his openness to the process.
“In Freddy’s case, he’s willing to give different things a try, and that’s a credit to Freddy and to our coaching, development and equipment staff to look outside the box a little bit and see if there is anything we may be able to do to help his cause,” Keefe said. “Our organization is working together to come up with solutions to help players, and having a group of players willing to work and do the things that are necessary to get better is crucial. Freddy’s been an excellent example of that, and I’ve been really happy with his progress.
“He’s a 20-year-old first-year player in the AHL, and for me, he’s been a very effective player and a guy a really good team has missed when he’s been gone, despite his youth. So that’s a very positive sign of where he’s at and the fact there’s still very much room for growth is exciting.”