How Frederik Gauthier Survived Brendan Shanahan’s ‘Scorched Earth’ Rebuild

Frederik Gauthier has been a polarizing figure in Leafs Nation since former general manager, Dave Nonis, selected him with the 21st overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. From the moment he was chosen “The Goat” was deemed a “safe pick” by scouts and draft analysts. Gauthier earned that distinction having already shown a propensity for strong defensive play in his rookie season with Rimouski of the QMJHL and scouts believed that he would at least be able to fill a depth role in the NHL, even if his offensive game didn’t show any significant progression. Many fans and pundits alike criticized the Leafs for using a first round selection on a player who was perceived as perhaps not having a very high offensive ceiling, which was understandable given the state of the franchise at the time.

Gauthier was drafted by the Leafs after his rookie season in the QMJHL where he produced 22 goals and 38 assists for 60 points in 62 games. Those were decent numbers for a rookie but his play away from the puck is what propelled him to becoming a first round selection in the NHL draft. Leafs fans will remember that through the Brian Burke and Dave Nonis years, the organization had a very clear philosophy for building their forward group. There was an emphasis on the bottom six forwards being physical and defensively responsible, often at the expense of offensive creativity. At 6’5” and with a reputation as a strong defensive player, Frederik Gauthier seemed to fit that bill perfectly. But when he returned to junior the season after he was drafted, fans were undoubtedly hoping to see progress in his offensive game. The progression wasn’t evident and Gauthier produced at about the same rate as his draft year, finishing with 18 goals and 34 assists for 52 points in 54 games.

Despite his lack of offensive uptick, he was named to Team Canada for the 2014 World Junior Championships giving Leafs fans hope that there was still a solid prospect in there somewhere. The following season, he was again sent back to Rimouski but fans and even Leafs brass had to be disappointed when Gauthier’s already pedestrian offensive potential seemed to take a step back. He recorded just 32 points in 37 regular season games. He did, however, make another appearance representing Canada at the 2015 World Juniors in the middle of the season where he was again used mostly as a faceoff specialist and shutdown forward on the way to Canada claiming a gold medal. The season ended on another strong note for Gauthier as he went on to play an integral role in Rimouski capturing the President’s Cup as QMJHL Champions, again giving hope to Leafs Nation that he may eventually blossom into a serviceable NHL player.

As Gauthier finished off his junior career, the Maple Leafs were beginning an organizational overhaul. Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan was brought in as the Leafs new president in April of 2014 and the mandate was clear; restore the Maple Leafs organization to their rightful place as one of hockey’s most prestigious franchises. For the next several months Shanahan assessed the entire organization from top to bottom and decided to clean house the following April. Among others, Dave Nonis along with his assistants and the remnants of Randy Carlyle’s coaching staff were let go. Shanahan pegged Mark Hunter and a mostly unknown 28 year old, Kyle Dubas from the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, as the Leafs new assistant general managers while bringing other fresh voices such as Brandon Pridham into the fold. Hunter had an impressive scouting background and Dubas was largely viewed as a progressive, analytically inclined, up and coming executive. Basically the antithesis of what Leafs fans had grown accustomed to during the Brian Burke and Dave Nonis years. Shanahan made perhaps his most impressive acquisition a month later when he signed coach Mike Babcock to an 8 year contract. Babcock brought instant credibility to a franchise that had been lacking it for some time. In another somewhat surprising move, Shanahan also lured legendary GM Lou Lamoriello out of New Jersey’s front office to be the Leafs new general manager that July. Many believed that Lamoriello was brought in to be a mentor of sorts to Shanahan’s prized pupil, Kyle Dubas. As part of his apprenticeship, Dubas was charged with the task of managing the Leafs AHL affiliate. All of this begged the question, “What would become of the Goat?”

With the Leafs in the middle of yet another rebuild, Frederik Gauthier made the jump to the AHL with the Toronto Marlies to begin the 2015-2016 season. The move came with little fanfare, especially for a first round pick. Nevertheless, the Toronto media was anxious to know what the new, stats focused Marlies GM thought about the Leafs first round choice from 2013. “People that have got really strong defensive value, and we’ve already seen some of that in baseball…but you know in hockey…how do we measure that and for us he charts out very well in that regard”, Dubas said while also noting that Gauthier may not be someone that pure analytics people would suggest taking in the first round.

There was plenty of excitement and anticipation in Leafs Nation during this time and almost none of it focused on their first round pick from 2013. The team had a brand new front office, one of the best coaches in the world and had added promising prospects like William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen. Heck, there was probably more excitement for Nikita Soshnikov who was an undrafted free agent signing that nobody knew anything about. Expectations for Gauthier were at an all-time low and he became a bit of an afterthought for the fanbase. With no one remaining from the regime that brought him into the organization and a renewed focus on speed and skill, it looked as though Gauthier’s Leafs career might be over before it even began.

Despite all of that, he did enough in his first season with the Marlies to earn a 7 game stint with the big club at the end of the season when they had depleted their roster by selling off pending free agents such as Shawn Matthias and Daniel Winnik at the trade deadline. He managed just 1 assist and a -5 rating during the 7 games and the Leafs were heavily outplayed when he was on the ice as evidenced by his 40.3 CF% over that stretch. He wasn’t ready for the NHL and it looked as though his skating may never be good enough to stick at the highest level.

Gauthier returned to the Marlies to begin the 2016-17 season but was recalled by the Leafs again in December and went on to be a regular on the fourth line for the better part of a month. He failed to earn Babcock’s trust and lock down the job which led to Lamoriello sending a 2nd round pick to Tampa Bay in exchange for Brian Boyle who would go on to anchor the Leafs fourth line as they returned to the playoffs for the first time since the lockout shortened season in 2013.

After returning to the Marlies, Gauthier suffered a gruesome leg injury at the hands of Jake Dotchin during the second round of the AHL playoffs. He was slated to miss the next six months after having surgery to repair the injury. For a prospect who had already endured so many ups and downs and had his skating ability questioned at every level, an injury like that could have been a devastating blow to his career. Instead it may have actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as his surgery and rehab went so well that he was back on the ice just three months later, re-developing his skating stride with the Leafs trainers, Barb Underhill, and the sports science team. Again, he would make his way back to the Leafs for handful of games before Lamoriello spent another 2nd round pick and some low level prospects bringing in Tomas Plekanec to solidify the Leafs fourth line.

After another first round exit the Leafs parted ways with Lamoriello and named Kyle Dubas as his successor. With the Marlies still in the middle of a playoff run, it gave some players one more opportunity to show the Leafs new general manager what they could do. As Gauthier’s entry level deal was set to expire and he had yet to lock down an NHL job, there was a real possibility that the Leafs would decide not to give him a qualifying offer which would make him an unrestricted free agent. Even with his earlier praise for Gauthier’s defensive abilities, that possibility seemed even more likely with Dubas now at the helm and his reputation established as a forward thinking, analytical mind who wasn’t a fan of “safe players”. After all, players like Gauthier were symbolic of old-school team building philosophies that didn’t seem to have much value to someone like Kyle Dubas.

But before that decision had to be made, there was still the matter of the Marlies final push for a championship under Dubas. Gauthier was playing the best hockey of his career and established himself as an ultra-reliable shutdown center while chipping in 8 points during 20 games as the Marlies went on to win the Calder Cup in a gruelling seven game series with the Texas Stars. Adding a Calder Cup to a resumé that already included a QMJHL championship and World Junior gold medal had to make the organization sit back and take note of Gauthier’s knack for winning, no matter the level of competition. With his strong showing during that championship run under the watchful eyes of Kyle Dubas, and the lack of lower end center depth in the Leafs organization, Gauthier was signed to a 2 year contract just above league minimum salary.

Heading into this season it looked like a two-horse race for the Leafs fourth line center job between Gauthier and undrafted free agent signing, Par Lindholm. After initially beginning the season in the press box, Gauthier has taken advantage of opportunities created by injuries to play in 34 of the Leafs first 43 games. He is skating better than he ever has and is beginning to look more confident and assertive in the NHL, albeit in a sheltered fourth line role. He’s offered a steady defensive presence and has chipped in with 2 goals to go along with 5 assists while earning the trust of Mike Babcock to be in the lineup on a regular basis. He has been driving play mostly in the right direction, currently sitting second behind John Tavares among Leafs centres with a 53.9 HDCF%. Dubas has noted, “You might not find him as visually appeasing as you would a high-end skill guy, but boy he’s extremely effective.” It would seem as though Babcock feels the same way these days and while Gauthier will likely never be a real difference maker, he looks plenty capable of filling a depth role in the NHL.

Five years after being chosen in the first round, Gauthier finally looks to be fulfilling the potential that Nonis and company drafted him for when he was considered a “safe pick” back in 2013. Through all the organizational turnover both on and off the ice during Brendan Shanahan’s “scorched earth” rebuild and Gauthier’s own tribulations along the way, it is somewhat poetic that a draft pick Nonis was so harshly criticized for, who most would agree never would have been made under the current regime, has finally managed to carve out an NHL role in Dubas’ first iteration of the Maple Leafs.

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Author: TrueBlueLeafs

True Blue

2 thoughts on “How Frederik Gauthier Survived Brendan Shanahan’s ‘Scorched Earth’ Rebuild”

  1. Great article! Gauthier has really made a believer out of fans this year I think. He seems to have gained a step for sure and like you pointed out is more assertive this year. Definitely wish he had a bit more puck skills but he’s a solid 4C.

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