Frederik Gauthier – the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first round selection, 22nd overall in June’s NHL Entry Draft – was the definition of a safe pick.
Gauthier put up solid numbers in his QMJHL rookie season, scoring 22 goals and 60 points in 62 games. Still, it seems like point production often takes a back seat to defensive play and face-off ability when talking about the 6’5 centre.
Very few high-end, impact forwards in the NHL list ‘defence’ as their calling card. That’s partly why expectations have already been set relatively low for a first round pick. No one will say they don’t like having a big, strong, steady centre in the organization, but a few might have preferred the Leafs take a chance on a more offensively inclined youngster in Gauthier’s place.
For instance, Andre Burakovsky (WSH), Hunter Shinkaruk (VAN), Valentin Zykov (LAK) and Nicolas Petan (WPG) were all selected shortly after Gauthier. All were known for offensive skill and impressively high points totals.
So why is it that the Leafs have trended towards ‘safe’ picks in recent years, a la Gauthier, Tyler Biggs, and Stuart Percy? Michael Traikos of the National Post has a theory…
"The Leafs are not interested in trying to hit for the fences with their picks. Instead, they tend to choose prospects that might have a lower ceiling but are more likely to become NHL players. It is a strategy that might product four bottom-six forwards rather than one top-six forward, but the Leafs believe there is strength in numbers."
It makes sense, in that one middling NHL player is better than any number of busts. In all honesty, it might be the smartest way to go unless you’re picking much higher in the draft, where there’s a little more certainty in how much a player’s offence will progress.
Circling back around, Gauthier’s lack of an offensive track record isn’t lost on Leafs staff. As Marlies head coach Steve Spott explained during Toronto’s recent rookie tournament…
"For Fred, it’s going to be an adjustment. He’s going to have to find a way to create some offence… We know how good he is defensively. I think there’s more there. He just has to push himself harder to do it."
It’s not hard to imagine Gauthier becoming a point-per-game-plus player with Rimouski next season. In fact, it would be a disappointment if he wasn’t. Whether that offense translates into the NHL will be the difference between a very big, very useful, second line center, or a third line defensive and penalty kill specialist.
As valuable as those third liners are to NHL teams, I can’t help but feel the Gauthier pick will be seen as a little disappointing if he doesn’t develop an offensive game.