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Gauthier determined to make Maple Leafs roster

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs have been stockpiling smaller, skilled forwards the past few years, but a larger center best known for his defense will take a stab at making their roster this  season.

Frederik Gauthier, 20, helped Canada win a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, then had 16 points in 20 playoff games to help the Rimouski Oceanic win the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's President Cup and advance to the Memorial Cup.

Now, he's determined to turn professional.

"My goal this year is to make the team," Gauthier said Tuesday at Maple Leafs development camp at MasterCard Centre. "I think I worked hard last year and the year before and I think I am ready. I'm going to keep working out and improving and try to make the team."

After selecting the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gauthier in the first round (No. 21) at the 2013 NHL Draft, the Maple Leafs used first-round picks on William Nylander (5-foot-11, 174 pounds) in 2014 and Mitchell Marner (5-foot-10, 160 pounds) in 2015. They also acquired Kasperi Kapanen (6-foot, 190 pounds), who was the Pittsburgh Penguins' first-round pick in 2014, in the Phil Kessel trade.

In three seasons with the Oceanic, Gauthier scored 56 goals and had 144 points in 151 games. He had two goals in the 2015 QMJHL playoffs, but each was a game-winner.

Gauthier played on Canada's gold medal-winning team at the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, scoring the game-winning goal in a 3-2 victory against the United States in the final.

Gauthier is not quick, but he has tremendous defensive instincts, and that's the biggest reason he has played for Canada at the past two World Junior Championship tournaments. He had two assists in 2015, when he primarily was used as a checker.

Preventing goals has been Gauthier's forte for a long time.

In Gauthier's draft year, Chris Bordeleau of NHL Central Scouting said of the Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Quebec, native: "I've never seen a kid get back and play defense like he does in 20 years."

The Maple Leafs expect Gauthier, who is also strong on faceoffs, will be a big part of the organization moving forward.

"With Frederik, he's been on two Team Canadas, he has been to the Memorial Cup, he has won a (Quebec League) championship," Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas said. "He's a guy that coaches really like. They play him a lot and use him on every defensive-zone faceoff. For every important faceoff he is on the ice. He's the guy you go and watch and you may not find him as visually appeasing as you would a high-end skilled guy like Nylander, Kapanen or Marner, but boy, he is extremely effective."

Gauthier said his international experience has helped him grow as a player; he hopes winning two world titles will benefit him moving forward. Also, he said, winning the QMJHL championship was a valuable experience.

"The big thing for me about this year was winning," Gauthier said. "We won the Cup in the 'Q' and we won the gold at the World Juniors. Personally I think my game has improved."

The Maple Leafs say they will be open-minded about allowing a youngster to play his way into their lineup, as defenseman Morgan Rielly did two years ago as a 19-year-old, but under new coach Mike Babcock, a player will have to be fully NHL-ready. If not, it will be back to junior, college or the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.

Gauthier knows his game is not complete, but he is prepared to work hard to improve. That's his mission this summer. Then, if he ends up playing in the AHL, he said his attitude will be good.

"It will be the same as it was in junior this year," Gauthier said. "I want to improve myself. I want to be better. If I have to go to the American League, there is a reason for it, and I am going to be happy and try to improve and be a better player."

Asked what type of player he'll be when he makes it to the NHL, Gauthier smiled and said, "I think I will be whatever they want me to be, I guess. I am a defensive player and I am starting to work on my offensive game to become a two-way center who can help you offensively and defensively."

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