To say that Frederik Gauthier is a polarizing player among Leafs fans would be a massive understatement. As the Leafs first round pick in 2013, he has eyes on him at all times, and is praised for what he is as often as he's criticized for what he can't be. Gauthier sees a slight drop in his ranking on our list this year as he starts his pro career.
Let's first take a look at what he did with his time in junior:
How did he get here?
From a (basic) statistical point of view, Gauthier's progression has been troubling. His offense has never really developed past the scoring rate he posted in his draft year, as he's hovered slightly below 1 point per game in each of the past two seasons (both of which have been cut short by injury). As such, it's no surprise that a list of comparable players with similar statistical resumes to his is very mediocre.
If you don't recognize anyone on that list, I don't blame you. It underscores the idea that it's rare to find a player who makes a difference at the NHL level who wasn't a great player at every level below that. And from a scoring/offensive point of view, Gauthier has been far from great.
As most of you know, Gauthier was never drafted with offensive upside in mind. Even on his draft day, when guys who will never make the league get compared to NHL stars, it was essentially unanimous that he lacked the offensive instincts and puck skills to ever make a real offensive impact in the NHL. The most favourable comparison I saw him get was Martin Hanzal.
In that light, Gauthier's lack of offensive progression is more understandable, although no less concerning in terms of projecting his future.
To many, Gauthier is a high-profile example of the qualities that Dave Nonis (over)valued. Attributes like size, defensive inclination, faceoff ability; these are all things Gauthier has in spades.
Those qualities are what made him a first round pick -- one who was never really considered a reach at 21st overall. For this reason, there's been much crowing in the Leafs fanbase (including here) about how he was/is a wasted pick, and that his NHL career is essentially over before it really has a chance to start.
That being said, there's an equal amount of people in the Leafs fanbase who think a large, solid, defensively reliable player like Gauthier is a lock to be on the Leafs bottom-6 for a decade, and provides a perfect complement to the highly skilled prospects that populate the rest of the Leafs farm system.
As for me, I find it hard to know what to make of Gauthier. His statistical resume speaks for itself, and not in a positive way. Perhaps more concerning is the seeming lack of progression in the last two years. There's also the question of how he would be looked upon if he was a fourth round pick instead of a first round pick.
That said, he was also used in an obscenely defensive role. In the 10 or so Rimouski games I've watched (excluding the Memorial Cup), I'm not sure I ever saw him start in the offensive zone at even strength. He took on huge penalty killing responsibility in Rimouski, often killing off the full two minutes. And from what I've seen, he legitimately is a good defensive player -- good awareness, good gap control, and a decent enough skater.
All of these provide value, especially with what we're learning about what attributes make up a good possession player. While we don't have possession numbers for the QMJHL, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Gauthier was a possession beast at this level (Kyle Dubas has hinted as much) and it wouldn't surprise me to see him perform well in the NHL in the same capacity.
Outside of this, this fanbase (myself included) has also judged Gauthier harshly for things outside of his control. The first round pick that we spent on him is a sunk cost, and at the time, it wasn't a terrible pick. Were there players who I would've preferred? Absolutely. But in terms of evaluating his use to the Leafs going forward, the fact that we spent a first round pick on him is (or should be) irrelevant.
Where is he going?
As mentioned earlier, Gauthier will make his pro debut this year, either in a bottom-6 role with the Marlies, or as a top-centre on the Solar Bears in the ECHL.
The Leafs have said that they don't want to pigeonhole him as a 3rd line centre (though that's likely where he ends up anyways), which may indicate that they'll provide him with a bigger role in the ECHL as opposed to a smaller one with the stacked forward group of the Marlies. He's certainly someone that will be monitored closely going forward as he enters what I believe to be a pivotal year for him.
If his defensive play is as advertised and we actually find out that he can bring value on the offensive end (something that his current usage obscures), it's a very positive sign. If he struggles adapting to the pro game, it's likely he falls off the list entirely next year. Either way, by this time next year, we should know who and what Gauthier is as a player.
I ranked Gauthier at 20 mostly due to his perceived low risk. Despite his offense not improving in the last few years (at least as reflected in scoring numbers), it is still likely he makes it to the NHL by virtue of his size, faceoff ability, and defensive game. While he likely won't be great as a NHLer, cost-controlled bottom-6 players still have value, as does the certainty (as far as prospects go) that he'll at least get a cup of coffee in the NHL.
Here's how the rest of the votes went down:
The Scout Says
We talked to Gus Katsaros of McKeen's Hockey about Gauthier:
Q: The Leafs have invested heavily this season in high-skilled offensive forwards. Does Gauthier still fit with the direction the Leafs appear to be moving in?
The Leafs drafted skilled question marks with the likelihood of all these specific players shaping the Leafs roster at some future date more unlikely than generally accepted. I picture them as individual assets and with only a few making any significant impact. The strategy is clear, attract, draft, and acquire as many skilled assets but the roster isn’t likely to be shaped by the assets from this one draft.
Gauthier has subtle offensive skill and smarts, but it’s the work ethic and commitment to proper transitional play that earns him a spot in the lineup. He won’t outright win a spot over a more skilled player, but still has utility value that offers potential.
Q: Should we be concerned about Gauthier's relatively low offensive output?
There’s always a concern about a lack of offense, however, the top end potential for Gauthier was never much more than a lower roster ‘checking’ or specialty pivot. He will stay in the NHL as the support during a forecheck, or boards work in the offensive zone, and the support level in the defensive zone. In other words, there’s a specialty to playing within the desired system and he’s a versatile enough player to add value there. He just won’t generate enough offense or create individually to be considered an offensive player.
Even as a utility player, he’ll be in tough to become an NHL regular without the best effort on every shift. His first AHL season will go a long way to determining if there’s a future or not.
Q: Where do you see the best place for Gauthier's development this season?
Not likely to break the Leafs roster and ideally, he’s a vital part of the young Marlies.
Here's a story Scott Wheeler wrote on Gauthier's impressive early play in this year's playoffs, including some lofty praise from his head coach.